Paul Dano and Lily James lead this stellar BBC adaptation

Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is truly one of history’s greatest novels. The dauntingly long piece of Russian literature covers an amazing range of themes. Love, politics, honor, Russian society, war, friendship, family, and other themes are set against the backdrop of the French invasion of Russia in 1805. Screenwriter Andrew Davies and director Tom Harper have done an admirable job adapting the literary classic in this sparkling mini-series produced by BBC Wales and The Weinstein Company. Americans may have caught its airing on the Lifetime channel.

Wisely avoiding many of the traps in adapting classic literature, Davies has chosen to narrow the focus of Tolstoy’s novel to a few pivotal characters. That does give less character development to War and Peace’s deep list of ancillary characters, but sacrifices have to be made keeping the entire tale under six hours in a mere eight episodes. This is a gripping, engaging adaptation that paints a moving story of several elite families, buffeted by social and economic forces greater than even their status and fortunes can prevent. Napoleon’s impending invasion of Russia will change everything they expected from life.

It begins with the socially awkward Pierre Bezukhov (Paul Dano), the illegitimate son of a wealthy Russian Count. Educated abroad, he feels out of place in the high society of St. Petersburg. Pierre is the tragic heart of this War and Peace, a man that will soon come to learn money can’t buy happiness or love. Pierre’s friend is the dashing Prince Andrei (James Norton). Disillusioned by marriage and the artifice of high society, he’ll run off to war hoping for something more in his life. The spirited Natasha Rostova (Lily James), teen daughter of an important Russian family, yearns for romance with a string of suitors. One of Pierre’s dear friends, her life will turn in bitter and unexpected ways. How will all their fates become entangled in the turbulent changes and reckless personal decisions that push their lives?

The plot and themes are tilted somewhat with a greater dramatic focus on the love and lives of each character…

Fans of lush historical drama and sweeping epics should cotton very well to this excellent period piece dripping with emotional integrity. The plot and themes are tilted somewhat with a greater dramatic focus on the love and lives of each character, leaving weightier political and war themes on the sidelines. Its best moments come at the expense of poor Pierre and Natasha, both victims of their own earnestness as they navigate the bloodiest battlefield of them all, the heart.

The ensemble cast of supporting players is an impressive roster of acting talent: Jim Broadbend, Gillian Anderson, Stephen Rea, Brian Cox, and Kenneth Cranham, among others. Gillian Anderson briefly shows up as Anna Pavlovna Scherer, an important woman in St. Petersburg society. Brian Cox is wonderful as a jaded and weary general. I was consistently impressed by each supporting turn. There are no weak links in this cast.

It’s so easy for these long mini-series to fall apart as characters move in and out of the story. War and Peace is a multi-generational saga, after all. The relatively short narrative focus, mostly taking place over the course of a few years in the early 1800s, greatly aids this adaptation’s storytelling. Paul Dano was perfectly cast as the shy and awkward Pierre Bezukhov, which makes this straightforward War and Peace a smart, involving adaptation that leaves viewers wanting more. It is a fluid telling with gorgeous production values and memorable performances, done in the best BBC style.

War and Peace Blu-ray screen shot 16


Starz/Anchor Bay provides a clean, consistent presentation which lacks true videophile polish. The eight episodes, running 358 minutes in total, are spread over two BD-50s. Video is encoded in a fine AVC video encode at adequate parameters. It is shown in its intended broadcast ratio at 1.78:1 in 1080P resolution.

Despite impressive production design and convincing Russian scenery, the cinematography is fairly ordinary for a costume drama. The lavish period drama is flawless but limited in high-frequency detail, often going for a soft-focus that doesn’t scream depth and pop. Its flat color saturation and average black levels give decent picture quality that superficially looks nice, but doesn’t hold up upon close inspection.

Interior shots actually exhibit greater contrast and detail. Some of the battle scenes are positively average and slightly washed out. It’s in a weird place that lacks the warmth and feel of film, while also lacking the razor-sharp quality of digital work. That choice appears to have been intentional by the filmmakers. Softer video was once common to period dramas. Having also seen War and Peace in HD video during its Lifetime broadcast, this is a perfectly fine reproduction that doesn’t quite add the type of detail and depth usually seen from high-quality Blu-ray video.


War and Peace receives a decent 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack with transparent dialogue and a smooth-sounding symphonic score. Its surround design features a number of active moments with split cues and panning effects, though it lacks the complete immersion heard in theatrical mixes.

The entire sound-field sees action, particularly in bustling streets or when the army is marching. More probably could have been done with a few elements, but television mixes often lack the full power heard in theatrical mixes.

Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles appear in a white font.


For a mini-series of this caliber, we get a few forgettable supplements that only play a few minutes each. Disappointing but special features are becoming an endangered species on TV releases.

From Page to Screen (04:44 in HD) – Screenwriter Andrew Davies and director Tom Harper discuss turning Tolstoy’s novel into a period drama from its script. Behind-the-scenes footage is included.

The Read Through (02:25 in HD) – A mere glimpse at the first read through of the script by the cast.

Making the Music (02:25 in HD) – Composer Martin Phipps discusses scoring such a lengthy series.

Count Rostov’s Dance (01:11 in HD) – The show’s choreographer briefly talks on this moment.

Rundale Palace (02:14 in HD) – An actual discussion by some curator of the place that acts as the setting for several key scenes.

What is War & Peace? (01:04 in HD) – A worthless featurette with most of the cast answering the question in five-second bursts.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

  • War And Peace
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Another fine BBC import mines Tolstoy’s greatest work for a rich saga of love and war.

User Review
5 (1 vote)

Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.

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