War and Peace: a large story told crisply

Unfortunately, every character in War and Peace is loathsome. Fortunately, the cast is superb.

New series ★★★½
Sunday 8.30pm, BBC First

As a teenager, I loved Russian literature. Perhaps because, like the 19th century Russian novelists, I thought the world and everyone in it totally sucked. These days I'm both more sanguine and more forgiving, and those masterpieces don't speak to me in quite the same way. Which is to say, pretty much every character in War and Peace is loathsome, so in terms of viewing pleasure that presents something of an obstacle. On the upside, this lavish BBC-Weinstein co-production adapted by Andrew Davies still has plenty of relevance to say about human nature, and is inarguably a visual treat. The cast is superb. Paul Dano is just perfect as Pierre, Count Bezukhov: immature, a bit of a lost soul, whose dithering in this first episode had me grinding my teeth. This story is very much about his journey, so hopefully he'll get his sh*t together sharpish. James Norton is equally as good as Andrei Bolkonsky: imposingly handsome and morally rigorous, at the moment he's the one bloke you want to spend time with. But really, there are too many standouts to mention and the production design and cinematography are – as you'd expect – simply gorgeous. Perhaps most impressive is the concision with which this has been scripted and edited. War and Peace has a reputation as a dauntingly large story. This rendition is marvellously crisp and engaging.