Sickness and Remorse
by DICK CHENEY
War & Peace
creators Andrew Davies and Tom Harper
The BBC is a strange institution. The thought of taking money that could be used to feed and clothe your poorest citizens and spending it on period dramas and left-wing news reports has always seemed a bit gauche, but I mean what the hell you only live once.
The venerable screenwriter Andrew Davies is still working at 79. He is back with the BBC, because I guess he was the only person there who actually lived during the events of War & Peace? “People like bonnets. I don’t think you can underestimate that,” Davies said recently, complaining about the reason his state-run media was not interested in his adaptations of some minor English novels. They demand the classics and that’s what he is giving them!
It is fortunate that we do not have to suffer through such a proliferation of period adaptations in this country, and England is taking that bullet for us. I think something similar is going on with Muslim immigration? Turning War & Peace into a Jane Austen novel is an extremely audacious move. Much like the novel this BBC adaptation (exported to America later this year) is a dull slog punctuated by a couple of exciting moments.
Apparently Russia in the 1800s was basically Britain. If you did not know any better, how would you even tell this is taking place in a country other than Britain? One of the actress in War & Peace attempts a Russian accent, but no one else even tries. It is a weird disconnect: like did they not tell her no one was going to do this? Was she going ham on her own? Was Andrew Davies napping during the filming of this scene?
So many questions. Pierre (Paul Dano) inherits a massive fortune from his father despite the fact that he is one of many illegitimate sons. We never hear about any of the other children. Pierre’s friend Andrei (James Norton) is extremely unhappy living in St. Petersburg society. Despite the fact that Andrei’s wife has a child on the way, he heads off to the war against Napoleon. Dano stays behind and marries a terrible woman.
All these events seemed quite important to Leo Tolstoy, but I mean, they weren’t. No one even talks about Napoleon very much except to notice he was something of a dick, and this entire Russian society was wiped out by the murderous delusions of the communists. In order to make War & Peace relevant, Davies focuses on the psychological and existential aspect of the novel. The scenes of war represent spectacle we have to endure to uncover personal revelations that can only be realized in the context of wealth.
Dano, one of the most charismatic and understated actors of his generation, is given the awful role of Pierre. Director Tom Harper (Peaky Blinders) dresses him up like an idiot and most of his scenes are boring tripe that leave him looking off into the distance in utter unhappiness.
Despite embracing altruism and becoming a Freemason at one point, Pierre never grows or changes as a character and everyone involved in the story takes advantage of his good nature. Coming suddenly into a large amount of money is the kind of hypothetical moral problem that only England and Russia could find entertaining.
Making things substantially worse is the presence of Natasha (Lily James). Since she decided to ruin Downton Abbey with a disturbing lilt to her voice and her total lack of respect for the memory of Lady Sybil or her sex tape, James has insisted on appearing as almost every historical character: Cinderella, Joan of Arc, Margaret Thatcher, Gandhi.
In the future all roles will be portrayed by Lily James, hopefully after she spends a solid semester in acting class. Natasha wears progressively less clothing as the series goes on, giggling whenever anyone else speaks. If anyone happens — if she is scared, happy, sad, angry, bored — her eyes become misty and red like she is going to cry. “The girl is a treasure,” Pierre explains, since we would not otherwise believe any man would even want to marry her.
Davies tries to spice things up by lending special emphasis to the affair Dano’s wife Helene (Tupence Middleton) has with Dolokhov (Tom Burke). They have sex on a table with some plates quaking underneath their wintercourse.
When Pierre finds out that his wife is cheating on him, he challenges Dolokhov to a duel. Amusingly, he shoots and wounds his larger opponent. “The one thing I am thankful for is that I didn’t kill that man,” he explains to Andrei, who is aghast. “To take a man’s life is always wrong,” Pierre says. “For you, perhaps,” Andrei responds. “For me there are only two evils: sickness and remorse.”
It is difficult to feel too invested in any of the action taking place, since unlike in American stories, no one ever receives their just deserts. At the most someone gets told off or discarded. A few of the women die as is Tolstoy’s want, but only long after we have stopped caring. War & Peace is just a Jackson Pollock canvas of shit, shit and more shit.
In this morass, Napoleon (Mathieu Kassovitz) becomes a sort of weird anti-hero who has correctly identified a poisoned, ancient society and is determined to destroy it. Unfortunately he does not do so, and this adaptation of War & Peace practically writes him out of the story altogether, even though he is one of the book’s central figures.
The best thing in War and Peace is usually Andrei, who is the only individual of any virtue. (“He’s intense and deep,” Natasha says of him.) Andrei’s wife dies during childbirth soon after his return from the front. Instead of doing anything interesting, he becomes a recluse who focuses on the problems of military organization, leaving the raising of the son to his parents. Pierre draws him back to society with disastrous results.
I do not really think English people could adapt War & Peace without making it about England. If it is true that the Russia of this period was doomed to destruction, then so was England. Unless, as seems likely, they were very different places.
As the miniseries soldiers on, the focus on Lily James’ Natasha exceeds all reason. She is the worst character in all of War & Peace, a simpering ninny who jumps into bed with her mother for advice and only talks about which boys she is interested in. It takes most of the novel’s length to even get her married; it feels like she turns down five or six proposals. Maybe we could understand this from a beautiful creature, but this is Lily James: she should probably settle for the first Andrei who agrees.
Ayn Rand once testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee about a pro-Russia propaganda film produced by MGM called Song of Russia. She explained to the committee why the movie did not reflect anything about the Russia she knew. A racist Democrat from Georgia named John Stephens Wood asked her whether or not Song of Russia was useful propaganda if it fulfilled the purpose of keeping America allied with Russia against their Germany during the war.
I will never forget what she said. It was this: “I don’t believe the American people should ever be told lies, publicly or privately.” Such a seemingly innocuous statement, but it is true on every single level. Personally, I don’t believe the British people should be told lies, publicy or privately. War & Peace is full of them, and it was paid for by their taxes.
Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording.
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