Russia’s verdict on BBC’s War and Peace: ‘a classic with cleavage’
Critics in the Russian media respond with praise, amusement and raised eyebrows at the adaptation’s more explicit scenes
Russian reviewers have responded with both praise and barely concealed amusement to the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace, with reviewers describing it as a “medium-budget soap opera” and a “classic with cleavage”.
One review of the Tolstoy adaptation starring Paul Dano and Lily James said eyebrows had been raised in Russia at the risque scenes. St Petersburg news website Fontanka.ru said one dress was so low cut, the actor’s cleavage looked like it would “fall on the dinner plate”.
Leo Tolstoy’s four-volume novel set during Napoleon’s 1812 invasion is deeply lodged in Russia’s collective psyche, and it was once compulsory to read the 1,000-page book in schools.
The BBC series, written by Andrew Davies and watched by 6 million viewers, has not yet aired in Russia, but many have sought out episodes online, Russian media reported.
Many reviews commented on the decision by Davies and the BBC to skirt over many of the sprawling subplots and focus on the romance – including spotlighting the hints of an incestuous relationship between brother and sister Anatole and Hélène Kuragin.
Davies admitted he had made the relationship more explicit by showing Tuppence Middleton and Callum Turner, who play the siblings, in bed together.
For at least one Russian tabloid, the scene did not go far enough. “The promised incest scene came in the first episode,” wrote Komsomolskaya Pravda, offering a “hint of scandal”.
“Anatole strokes his sister under a blanket,” it continued. The “prim English evidently decided not to arouse the feelings of literature lovers” by “not showing the viewers everything”.
Davies said it was crucial to include the incestuous relationship in his adaptation. “Hélène and Anatole are in an incestuous relationship, but Tolstoy indicates this so subtly that most readers, including me, at first reading, miss it altogether,” he told the Radio Times.
“This relationship, and their attitude to it, is so crucial to our understanding of them that for me, at least, it needs to be on screen.”
Some critics compared the series unfavourably to Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1966 version, which won an Oscar for best foreign-language film.
Rossiiskaya Gazeta, a state-owned newspaper, said the BBC’s version was “not a patch” on Bondarchuk’s, and that it lacked reverence for Tolstoy’s text. It described it as a “medium-budget soap opera” more focused on fawning beauties, glasses clinking and magnificent balls than on the philosophy of the human spirit and endurance.
Others welcomed a simpler, more erotic version to introduce non-readers and a younger audience to the sweeping saga, especially the charged sex scene between the married Hélène and her playboy lover Fedya Dolokhov.
“On a formally laid table, the cutlery shakes rhythmically … the passionate Fedya Dolokhov, eyes shining insolently, thrusts himself upon [her],” said Fontanka.ru. “Now the great novel will not only be more accessible but also more interesting,” the reviewer quipped.
Reviews in the UK also opined that the sexed-up series was not one to be taken too seriously. “Bosoms heaving? Sabres flashing? Lucrative foreign sales projected? Check, check, check,” wrote the Guardian’s Stuart Jeffries.
In Russia, reviewers also praised Dano’s performance as Pierre Bezukhov, with Meduza.ru calling it “the main success of the series … an absolutely exact match and probably the most fleshed-out character.”
Entertainment website Afisha was less positive about James as Natasha Rostova, saying she merely “wears a fringe and smiles in a cute way”.
That verdict on James’s performance is strikingly similar to that of the Telegraph’s Serena Davies, who gave the series four stars but said James’s performance was the “biggest concern: although she can flutter and flirt with the best of them, I doubt she’s the tragedian required for the story’s later chapters.”
The series is clearly aimed at those who have not read the book and are unlikely ever to do so, the Russian reviewer for Afisha continued, but conceded the series as a whole was “fresh, bombastic, beautiful and clever in a British way”.
If there was a theme to the Russian criticism, it was that the series did not feel Russian enough, even the scenes filmed in St Petersburg, which Meduza.ru said was barely recognisable.
The feeling it evokes is “neither that of a Russian village, nor glittering St Petersburg, nor hospitable and extravagant Moscow”, wrote Izvestia’s reviewer. “The adaptation lacks the most important thing: atmosphere.”
The Guardian’s review drew the same conclusion. “The adaptation’s biggest problem? 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,” Jeffries wrote.