NEW BLOOD

01.19.16 11:13 AM ET

‘War and Peace’: Incest and Fruit-Smashing Sex with Style to Spare

The BBC’s six-part miniseries adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace has come to America, bringing along with it stunning costumes and plenty of high-class hanky-panky.

The opening scene of War and Peace, the first two hours of which screened on A&E, Lifetime, and History Channel on Monday night, was specifically constructed with the purpose of allaying fears that the screen version would not be faithful to Leo Tolstoy’s 1800-page magnum opus.

Last night’s adaptation opened—as does the book—with a glittering, super-long tracking shot that takes us on a tour of a society party, an event laden with a sense of denial, all too apparent to the reader/viewer, that these really are the last days of a very long, very Imperial disco. The party is being held at the St. Petersburg home of Anna Pavlovna, played to snobbish perfection by Gillian Anderson.

This being a British Broadcasting Company costume drama in the grandest of BBC traditions, the costumes naturally have a starring role—and never more so than in these opening minutes. Silly hats, lavish military uniforms completely unsuitable for warfare, taffeta, gold brocade, pearls, diamonds, and acres of heaving décolletage; it’s all present and correct in the long, loving shot that occupies these opening minutes. The rooms are equally well-dressed too, with squidgy velvet sofas, gigantic velvet curtains, and elegant little card tables around which groups gather to gossip and giggle. This is the BBC’s way of telling you that after allowing the costume-drama crown to be snatched by their commercial rivals ITV in the form of Downton Abbey, they’re back. So grab a cup of tea, relax, and settle in for six-plus hours of pure, historical escapism.

As in the book, the key themes of the story are quickly introduced.

One of the great problems of reading War and Peace (a task I undertook at school, and recently revisited on audiobook in the car) is the Russian names, which are very confusing since everyone has several different names (or patronyms, corruptions, and diminutives of one’s father’s name) by which they are referred to by others, depending on their rank and familiarity with the person they are speaking with. Wonderfully, this BBC adaptation does away with all that, making it relatively simple to figure out who is who.

In essence, the key plot points to understand from last night are that scheming Prince Vassily Kuragin (a worldly Stephen Rea) wants his daughter Hélène and son Anatole married off. Illegitimate Pierre Bezukhov (Paul Dano), a social klutz and heavy-drinking youth, unexpectedly becomes one of the richest men in Russia when his father, the dying Count Bezukhov, recognises him as legitimate on his deathbed, transforming Pierre from local laughingstock into Vassily’s prime marriage target for his Hélène. But Pierre is in love with Natasha (Lily James), the beautiful daughter of impoverished aristocrats (Davies wisely ignores the fact that she is, ahem, 12, in the opening of Tolstoy’s book and Pierre is clearly a womanizing twenty-something).

Pierre is weak, however, and by the end of last night’s first installment had been railroaded into marriage with Hélène, who is very beautiful and very damaged.

Tolstoy lets us know she is not a particularly good egg via a series of subtle hints and prompts, but screenwriter Andrew Davies has a better idea: He shows her brother stripping off and climbing into bed with her in the opening minutes. Just in case you miss it, he refers to her as “sister” while preparing to make love to her (the sex itself is mercifully not shown). There’s more sex later, when Hélène embarks on another affair with one of her husband’s pals on the dining room table. There’s crushed fruit everywhere. It’s terribly BBC.

The incest has been the cause of some controversy in the U.K., where we are a few episodes ahead of the U.S. Of course, a few sensational headlines about incest never hurt ratings (see: Game of Thrones), but this viewer at least found it unproblematic. Davis is quite right when he argues that the incestuous affair—which is presented as rumor in the book—needs to be shown explicitly in a modern screen adaptation of the novel.

As Catriona Kelly, professor of Russian at the University of Oxford, told The Daily Beast, “Andrew Davies isn’t making it up. Tolstoy has Pierre doubting whether he should marry Hélène Kuragin because of the rumors she is in love with her brother, and he with him.”

The trouble with War and Peace as a book is that although it is very good and a genuine page-turner in places, in others it is almost unreadable. Adding to the aforementioned issue that everyone is referred to by a different name every five minutes, there are pages and pages and yet more interminable pages devoted to the description of the most famous battles of the Napoleonic Wars. (“We advanced on the left flank. The French drew to a halt on the small grassy hill above the town, etc, etc…”)

Then, once the battle sequence is over, there will be a 20-page essay on the unreliability of conventional historians, a sort of fit of Tolstoyian pique in which the great author expounds at length on how they have all misunderstood the structure and progress of Russia’s war against Napoleon, followed by another diatribe on, for example, how the battle plans of military generals are never and can never be properly followed by an army in the heat of battle, and that the only wise generals are the ones who understand this.

At the risk of stating the obvious, War and Peace, the novel, does go on a bit. So it’s a credit to this new adaptation if it all feels like it’s happening a bit too quickly.

And next week, boy, things really get going….