War and Peace review – this silly Russian saga is a bit too English


Princess Helene is running through a vast palace, casting TV off an piece of clothing in each room. Given the number of rooms and all those 19th-century layers, it promises to be quite the protracted striptease. She’s pursued by Count Bezukhov, the sexual patsy of a new master, fiddling with his spectacles like a younger, more lubricious Captain Mainwaring.

I loved this scene, with its self-satirising perfume ad aesthetics and Tuppence Middleton performing unwitting homage to Nicole Kidman driven nuts by too much Chanel No 5. Was it faithful to Tolstoy’s novel? Don’t pretend you care.

“Touch me!” the princess commands as, finally, she lies coquettishly in the count’s bed, disclosing her naked bottom. “Touch me!” Pierre awakens. It’s all been a dream. For those of us refusing to go cold turkey after the final Downton on Christmas Day, Andrew Davies’s adaptation of War and Peace (BBC1) helps prolong another lovely dream, the delusive Sunday night fantasy of a past that never existed.

“We need a revolution in this country,” Pierre earlier tells a claque of aristo scum at a St Petersburg soiree in 1805 as Napoleon’s grande armée sweeps eastward. So does British television. We need liberation from the stays and corsets of costume dramas, from mutually assured seduction by Napoleon-era booty calls. But it won’t happen and so, in fairness, the government should give Davies a peerage like the one it awarded Julian Fellowes for his genius in keeping Britain supine during austerity years.

Indeed, this War and Peace has everything we need to get us through the winter without rising up and executing George Osborne for the public good. Bullingdon-meets-Drones-club montage of poshos on the razz with unconvincing prostitutes? Check. A confusion of new characters we can spend the long nights getting to know? Check. Hero (James Norton) with hollow cheeks, well-filled breeches and an interesting death wish? Check. Heroine (Lily James) excitable on the palace steps over departing boys in uniform, like an over-caffeinated younger Bennet girl from Davies’s version of Pride and Prejudice? Check.

Bosoms heaving? Sabres flashing? Lucrative foreign sales projected? Check, check, check.

For all the compelling silliness, there were two scenes I admired. Stephen Rea and Rebecca Front excelled in the deathbed wrangle over the old count’s secret will. Then there was the shocking violence with which Norton’s Prince Andrei thrust his pleading wife aside before heading off to war – more disturbing because it was a departure from the genteel English parameters of this adaptation.

Indeed, that, for me, was the adaptation’s biggest duduk perkara: it was too English. It took the deep-voiced Russian choruses that punctuated some scenes and the shots of CGI sailing ships frozen on the Neva, to remind me War and Peace was set not in Georgian England but tsarist Russia.

No matter, I’m already hooked – if only to find out what Mathieu Kassovitz will be like as Napoleon. I’ll be back next week for more of Davies’s latest sexed-up dossier of the classics. Acutely observed: Jonas Nay in Deutschland 83. Photograph: Nik Konietzny

In Deutschland 83 (Channel 4), Europe is preparing for another war: albeit, as it turns out, a phoney one. Warsaw Pact SS-20s are confronting Nato Pershing II missiles. The cold war seems to be heating up to the point of nuclear armageddon. In this context, the Stasi concoct a cunning plan. They will bump off a Bundeswehr’s aide-de-camp, Moritz Stamm, and replace him with a young man from the DDR who will insinuate himself into the West German military elite and photograph the contents of a US general’s briefcase to discover Nato’s list of targets and the dispositions of their weapons.

Enter Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay), the naive 24-year-old border guard charged with impersonating Stamm and thus winning the cold war. First they break one of his fingers (so he has an excuse for not playing piano as Stamm did virtuosically). Then his heroic smoker of an aunt, who is also a Stasi agent, explains his mum will only get the kidney op she needs if he takes the job. Then they drug him and ship him over the border. When he comes round he’s no longer in East Germany but in Bonn, where a handler is to train him in espionage techniques.

The resultant culture clash is astutely observed. At a party, a West German asks Rauch if he likes black music. Of course, he replies witlessly, he learned to dance salsa thanks to a delegation from Cuba. Then he realises his faux pas – he’s supposed to be West German now. Cuba, he explains, is a club in Braunschweig. Good save.

It’s refreshing to see a German drama on British TV. Never since Berlin Alexanderplatz or Heimat has German TV had much traction in Britain. Never has it had the cachet of Scandi dramas like The Killing, Wallander or The Bridge. There’s nothing, yet, as stylish or inventive as those in Deutschland 83, but there are unexpected pleasures.

As with US spy drama The Americans, one delight of Deutschland 83 is rooting for the putative bad guys – there for the KGB agents in Washington DC, here for the Stasi spy. But how do these lackeys of evil empires work undetected in the lands of the ostensibly free? “The true luxury of the west is that no one pays attention to you,” explains Rauch’s handler. The west’s luxury, then, is its liability: if no one’s paying attention to you, it’s easy to be a spy bent on taking down that oxymoron, western civilisation.

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