BBC has a thing for adapting classical stories. British culture generally speaking does too, and understandably so – Jane Austen’s wit sounds much more refined with an English accent. But beyond the curious oddity of English actors playing Russian characters who speak French, this adaptation, perhaps like its source material, is something of a mixed bag.
The first thing that must be said about this series, which is to be quite honest faithful to the source material, is that this is a busy, busy series. There are least three distinct storylines in the first episode alone, and each of those with three or more characters. With all of those characters intertwined, and varied thematic elements at play in each of them, the series can be a bit dizzying to follow. Just when you’re focused on the double standards of sexual promiscuity in upper-class Russia, the attention shifts to bravery and cowardice at the battlefront, then again to the longing of a young woman for love and marriage. While each of the characters are compelling in their own right, it’s hard to figure just who exactly we’re supposed to care about when.
All of these things are set against the backdrop of Russia’s war with Napoleon (and no, it’s not in the winter), thus the title War & Peace. The war itself is a significant influence on each of the characters (one of the more prominent characters leaving his wife in the first episode to enter the war, for example), but even given the many storyarchs, there are really two significant themes that come from the war and the response of the Russians to it: the reality of the battlefield, and the disconnected bliss of the upper class.
The former of those is pretty straightforward and nothing that would be too unexpected. However, it is curious that the story follows some of the more wealthy people who end up in the war, and their reactions to it. What comes of that is some measure of pride, though that serves to be amended (hopefully) by the series’ end. And so, in a sense, there is an overall, cohesive theme to the series, though it be difficult to ascertain at first: critique of the upper class.
Lest you should be mistaken, this is not a critique in some social justice way, where a stereotype of fat rich overlords wine and dine while the real soldiers die on the battlefield. Make an argument for that if you will, but it’s implicit if present at all. In fact, Pierre, who’s probably nearest the series’ main protagonist in terms of focus and direction, is one of these members of high society, albeit in an outcast sort of way (more on that later), and he’s a genuinely good guy, although his flaws are spelled out pretty early on. This is instead a cultural critique, pointing out the greed, hedonism, and intellectual stagnation of the class – not that they are rich, but rather how they then use their resources. And so it is that Pierre, coming in to his father’s wealthy estate is taken advantage of rather than applauded when he thinks aloud of the potential he would have to share his abundant resources with others.
It’s in this way that the narrative reveals itself to be clever even in its rather ambitious diversity. The story of Pierre is particular relevant to this point. He is by definition part of the culture but in every way contrary to it. His sentiments towards the war are atypical, the idea of helping people actually comes into his mind at some point in his life, and, this more than all of the rest, he’s a bastard son.
Herein lies the most poignant of the series’ ideas: when it comes to sexuality, there is a slew of hypocritical double-standards. Pierre is looked down on because he’s a bastard son (something he himself obviously has no control over whatsoever) while soldiers bed prostitutes and another upper-class family has a son and daughter in an incestuous relationship (Helene, the sister, becomes a love interest of Pierre’s for purely selfish and greedy reasons). These vices are framed in such a way that we’re meant to look down on them (with the possible exception of the soldiers) and sets up as opposite the example of Natasha, who is one of the only sincere women in the story.
All of this provides for a powerful moral critique. And yet, paradoxically, this is the most troubling aspect of the show. For while the purpose of the series’ sexual elements is to critique them, it seems to make a point of baring skin and providing sexual situations in order to get there, so that at best the message gets lost in the medium. It’s for that reason that I’m kept for recommending the show outright. For while Pierre’s counter-cultural virtue juxtaposed to those elements is commendable, it seems less for that purpose and more for the purpose of selling sex. It’s not so much so that the show becomes overly sensuous, but it’s hardly different from needing to wade through problematic content in any other show.
Consensus: 7/10. The cultural critique is a much needed one for our time, but the sexual content is more than is needed for the topic, and at times exaggerated from the source material.