Monday 11 January 2016

Now a Minor Motion Picture

'Based on the book by Leo Tolstoy'

Thus runs the credit in the BBC's acclaimed small-screen adaptation of the great Russian novel. Yes novel. Not 'book', Tolstoy was a novelist, not a book-writer. Somebody, for whatever reason, has decided that War and Peace is a book, not a novel. Just saying.

I watched part of the first episode over the weekend on my laptop in i-Player. A credit sequence includes the Emperor on a horse gazing at an unspecified Austrian battlefield, seen from behind and evoking Walter de la Mare's poem Napoleon, which runs in full:

'What is the world, O soldiers?
It is I:
I, this incessant snow,
This northern sky;
Soldiers, this solitude
Through which we go
Is I.' 

We cut to sunlit St Petersburg and a swish nuit blanche gathering around which the camera moves restlessly and often clumsily, the better (one assumes) to evoke a contemporary feel. I was reminded of the astonishing yet pointless virtuosity of the film Russian Ark directed by Alexander Sokurov - a single 96-minute Steadicam sequence shot roaming the Winter Palace.

The actors at the gathering are all mugging horribly, the jittery camera never stops rubber-necking on our behalf, and (has anyone noticed this?) nobody smokes! Even at the Bullingdon Club-style orgy glimpsed briefly ten minutes in (shrewdly timed as that is the point at which I should otherwise have turned off, or switched over if I had a telly) nobody has a cigar or a pipe, or even a Balkan sobranie (a symbol of almost unimaginable sophistication in my boyhood). There's no tobacco fug (as reliable a signifier of masculine depravity as bunches of grapes were in Hollywood's Roman orgies of the 1950s) and, almost literally,  no atmosphere. 

I continued watching because I really admire the American actor Paul Dano (who is 31, astonishingly). He plays Count Pyotr Kirillovich Bezukhov, although he is only ever referred to as Pierre as his aristocratic title presumably wouldn't play well with a popular audience. Dano has a perfect English accent, although his presence and his movements strike me as essentially American - especially the wonderful moment when he does a comic U-turn on a bridge in order to attend the aforementioned orgy. The fluent lunge in the opposite direction was worthy of Chaplin. Dano all but eclipsed the leading man Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will be Blood some years ago. Watch them both in the healing scene from this  great film. Dano is terrific.

"Natasha" (Countess Natalya Ilyinichna Rostova) is played beautifully by Lily James (who is 26, even more astonishingly) as a gauche, blinking adolescent. She is, alas, afflicted with the ghastly modern 'creak' in the voice adopted by most actresses under forty (and a few over). I wrote about this for the TLS here. 'Vocal Fry', as it's known, is as aurally anachronistic as a baseball cap, or trainers, or a selfie stick would be visually. There alas no shortage of anachronism in the dialogue - did I really hear Princess Anna Drubetskaya (played by Rebecca Front) say "Don't ask, don't get"?

I shan't bang on. After about fifteen minutes I stopped watching because I had other things to do (such as write this blog). A huge amount of hard work has gone into this production by our national broadcaster - both creative and technical - and that is a Good Thing It's also a Good Thing that the BBC can make such epic productions (although I'd like to see them engage more with contemporary drama, something more challenging - remember Play for Today?). I'm not really much of a telly person, and it's not because of the rubbish (which I wouldn't watch anyway) but because of the supposedly quality stuff. It's not that good, mostly. The type of well-wrought and thoughtful documentary programmes I particularly admired growing up, which formed me (Horizon, for instance) are no longer the sort of thing  regarded by producers as a source of instruction and illumination, but primarily of entertainment. So the bubbly presenter is obtrusive (and generally not an expert in the subject), the serene movements of a rostrum camera non-existent; there's constant music jangling away and, every five minutes, there's a quick re-cap for dullards and late arrivals. I'm also prone to forget anything I've seen on the telly within a few hours - not the case with films, radio and the written word. I guess that's just how I grew up, part of the last generation not to be exposed to television from birth.

As to War and Peace? I'll read the novel. Or book, if you insist.

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