By the end of last night’s third episode of Andrew Davies’s adaptation of War and Peace, half way through its run, one thing was clear – this is an epic romance, the likes of which we have not seen on television since Davies’s 1995 classic Pride and Prejudice. At his best Davies is capable of making romance not only palatable but simply irresistible to the modern mindset. When it works it is utterly captivating.
Last night’s instalment, the best of the three so far, was a shuffling of the cards that ended with the central love triangle all in place. At first we skipped from one affair to the next: the young people – Dolokhov, Helene, Rostov, Sonia and Boris – were all lusting or lunging, rejoicing or rebutting. But if that sounds like Jilly Coop-ski, in Davies’s hands it was a dazzling mazurka of roiling passions and misplaced affection. And at its heart was the burgeoning romance of the war-jaded Prince Andrei, the blossoming teenager Natasha and the cockolded, sorrowful Pierre. A romance which, it’s becoming apparent, is Davies’s primary interest.
Romance is not fashionable on television, being less sexy, ironically, than crime, murder, superheroes or sex itself. Romance is seen as old-fashioned, schmaltzy and trite. The word itself has even come to mean something not very serious, sentimentalised or idealised. But romance in its proper form – the excitement, mystery associated with love – is one of the oldest and most potent types of storytelling. It’s not simply because people thirst for resolution and a happy ending, but because most of us have known the strange feeling of delirium coupled with unease that has come to be called ‘being in love.’
Julian Fellowes, of course, sneaked it into primetime with Downton Abbey, a drama whose finest moments derived from the heady, unconsummated passions of Mary and Matthew, of Anna and Mr Bates.
Downton reminded us that period drama, set in just about any time before 1968, is the perfect setting for romance. Nowadays when you get that tingle, catch someone’s eye, you can find out all about them on Facebook, exchange phone numbers, get drunk and lunge – whatever your preferred method. But in the past, everything was hint and inference.
This is manna from heaven to the novelist, screenwriter, director and actor. Every gesture, from the most covert glance to the brushing of a hand, is amplified. Every action is saying much more tacitly than it is explicitly. Television is generally a close-up medium, and so is perfectly suited to these kinds of small explosions.
In last night’s episode, director Tom Harper conducted two scenes towards the close that were simply exquisite. The first was a formal ball – and yes, normally that would elicit a groan from me too; British literary adaptation, actors with fine diction and high cheekbones dancing in fancy frocks, I know. But here, the ball was effectively a courtship and consummation in cipher. At the moment at which Andrei and Natasha began to dance, Harper faded down the background hubbub in order to heighten the sense of their world becoming transcendent. Then he went close-up to Andrei’s hand moving on to Natasha’s back, and her fingers on his epaulette. Two small gestures that to the characters, in their buttoned-up world of infuriating ambiguity, would have meant everything.
After the dance, in a second superb scene, we had Andrei telling Pierre (Paul Dano) that he couldn’t live without Natasha, that he felt like he’d never properly been alive until now. But this was the same episode in which we came to realise that Pierre, who’d grown up with Natasha, was in love with her too. It was expressed almost entirely through slight shimmers in Dano’s wide eyes, through brief delight and bewilderment in his big round face. What did he do when Andrei asked for the advice of his old mucker – Andrei who with exquisite dramatic irony had not a clue that Pierre couldn’t live without Natasha either? He urged Andrei to marry her. Who has not had that feeling of congratulating a supposed friend on their great happiness through gritted teeth? Pierre hugged Andrei and we saw his face over his shoulder – utterly bereft.
Davies’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice is best remembered for Colin Firth emerging from a lake in a Regency version of a wet T-shirt competition, but it’s important to stress that this was merely the manifestation of a nexus of unspoken feelings that had enraptured Elizabeth for several episodes previously. Andrew Davies is exceptionally good at capturing every moment of burgeoning romance, including physical attraction – it’s unfair to say that he’s obsessed with sex, as the Phwoar and Peace-style headlines about James Norton’s tight breeches might suggest. In fact, three episodes of War and Peace have shown that Davies, in conjunction with the excellent Harper, has an eye and an ear for the whole process, from the first frissons of mutual admiration to the stolen glances, from the excitement this all creates to the corollary fear that it will soon go wrong somehow, because something so irrefragably wonderful surely must.
If anything War and Peace is turning in to something superior to Pride and Prejudice because of its epic setting. Davies (and we should probably note that he had some help from Leo Tolstoy here) has set the little wars of the heart, with their various sorties and skirmishes, victories and defeats, in counterpoint to the Napoleonic wars going on at the front. He understands that to the participants, both types of engagements feel equally terrifying, equally vital. Romantic love is only silly or sentimental when it’s not you that’s in love. Andrei thinks he wants martial glory over love, until he finds real love and realises it is far more intoxicating than glory. The same goes for the viewer – I thought the war scenes that Davies and Harper had realised in episodes one and two were jaw-dropping, until I saw Andrei, Natasha and Pierre begin their doomed dance last night.