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7 January 2016updated 03 Aug 2021 8:49am

It’s the little round spectacles in War and Peace that push it in the direction of greatness

War and Peace is so luxurious, it must have a budget even bigger than Alan Yentob's taxi bill. Plus: Beowulf.

By Rachel Cooke

No dodgy CGI. No “party” scenes featuring only half a dozen people. No feeble attempts to make some National Trust baroque stand substitute for a St Petersburg wedding cake. Plus, real snow: wide expanses of the stuff, as crisp and as pristine as hotel sheets. Yes, the BBC’s epic production of War and Peace (BBC1, Sundays, 9pm) comes to us not only with an embarrassment of riches in star turns, but with a finish that is quite amazingly luxurious. Unimaginable as this may sound, its budget must have been bigger even than Alan Yentob’s taxi bill. Every drawing room gleams, every table groans with treasure, and all the while Jim Broadbent, who plays Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, shuffles about in a dressing gown that looks as though it has been cut from priceless tapestry and stitched with pure gold.

Stitching, of course, is the crucial thing with literary adaptations, and sitting in the corner with the huge needle this time around was Andrew Davies, still the go-to guy when it comes to the fattest novels. Advance publicity had suggested a certain amount of sexing up of the Tolstoy on his part, and no doubt there will have been some who came over all faint when Anatole Kuragin (Callum Turner) slipped his fingers beneath the nightdress of his sister, Helene (Tuppence Middleton). But at his advanced age (he’s 79 now), Davies’s brand of mischief seems to me to be less gratuitous than of old. His scripts still tick, like grand old clocks (or bombs); they remain highly suspenseful and a touch camp. But he has become, I think, more interested in motive, and particularly in the role played by regret. Where once he used to splotch his dialogue with sauce, now he leavens it with hesitation and even silence.

For actors he provides not some microwaved TV supper, but the full Sunday roast: these are lines to be feasted on hungrily, and all the cast knows it. The performances are universally wonderful, from Rebecca Front as Anna Mikhailovna Drubetskoy (tough as old boots) to Stephen Rea as Prince Vas­sily Kuragin (his eternal disappointment almost, but not quite, masking his fox-like wiliness). But in Paul Dano as Pierre Bezukhov lies the greatest piece of TV casting in living memory: a coup, certainly, given his status in Hollywood, and also a little bit of genius. Good-heartedness is extremely difficult to play effectively – audiences often find it tiresome – yet Dano does it as easily as falling off a log. Never before has befuddled sincerity seemed so magnetic, so effortlessly watchable. Lily James (as Natasha Rostova) and James Norton (Prince Andrei Bolkonsky) might be the poster kids of this series, full of lip and fluffy of hair, but it’s Dano and his little round spectacles that push it in the direction of greatness.

And now, much more dispiritingly, to Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands (ITV, Sundays, 7pm), in which our hero – yes, the one out of the Anglo-Saxon poem, but with a Geordie accent and an attitude nicked from an old Lynx ad – went back to the Great Hall where he spent his boyhood, only to find that it had unaccountably turned into a northern nightclub circa 1985, complete with fake gold pillars and dodgy foaming cocktails (no mead on draught here). Understandably alarmed (such places are far more terrifying than anything Grendel’s mother has to offer), he drank too much, with inevitable consequences. Chased from the settlement by his spiteful half-brother Dean – sorry, I mean Slean – he soon fell into combat with one of the many evil creatures that roam this part of the north: picture Boris Johnson crossed with a dinosaur-sized kangaroo and wearing a set of luxuriant nail extensions, and you’re almost there.

Alas, I can’t go on, because it was at this point that my critical willpower, moving more swiftly than Hrothgar’s departing soul ever could, ran screaming from the room. Oh, woe. That this series is without poetry is wholly predictable; we all know a Game of Thrones wannabe when we see one. But what amazes me is that it carries with it so little sense of dread or mystery. Hwaet! as folk definitely don’t say in Newcastle of a Saturday night. Why, I wonder, did ITV bother making it at all? 

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This article appears in the 06 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue