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Ring in the New Year with War and Peace starring Lily James, Paul Dano and James Norton

War and Peace: on the set of the BBC's epic Tolstoy adaptation

With a cast that includes Lily James and Paul Dano, the BBC's War and Peace is as grand as its subject matter. Lucinda Everett goes behind the scenes

I don’t know why The Telegraph didn’t include James Norton in the headline for their article about the upcoming six part series. Norton plays Prince Andrei, the dark, moody—frankly sexy—third part of the love triangle between Natasha (Lily James) and nice guy Pierre Bezhukov (Paul Dano). I would have thought that he’d rate some headline action, especially for a British paper. Anyone who has seen Norton in Happy Valley knows he has good looks, certainly, but also the deep dark chops that are soon going to make his the mandatory name to include if you want to draw in readers. 

That being said, grumble grumble, the report from the set is a great read, whetting my appetite for this lavish period drama made on the cheap. Rather than shoot extensively in expensive and restrictive Russia, War and Peace was shot mainly in Latvia, with Rundale Palace standing in for St. Petersberg’s interiors. I did a post on that a week or so back.

There is one element of the drama that I’m finding bothersome and I’m not alone. The screenwriter Andrew Davies, a writer with all kinds of Brit period telly productions to his credit (and Bridget Jones Diary!) who hadn’t read the novel before coming to the project, has included an element of incest that many War and Peace scholars are furious about. 

His creative liberties have brought him under fire recently, with scholars furious about an incest storyline, which they argue is not in the text. Davies has defended his decision, saying, ‘Tolstoy hints very clearly that the characters of Hélène and Anatole Kuragin have been having an incestuous relationship. The convention of the day means that Tolstoy would never have actually written the scene.’ 

The conventions of the day? What about this day? Why is incest suddenly such a hot topic? Is it just me that would prefer Game of Thrones without the incestuous relationship between Cersei and her brother Jaime Lannister? I frankly don’t understand it. Can anybody out there please explain why we need this in our art?

That won’t stop me from watching the drama, which while true to the period in terms of clothing and sets, seems to have a fresh new sheen on it. Let’s face it. War and Peace has been done to death, and while the Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Mel Ferrar version is considered a classic, when was the last time anybody you know watched it?

‘There’s been no continuity of age, place or state, so I listen to music to capture a certain state of mind,’ James says. ‘When Natasha is a teenager falling in love with Anatole it was Whitney Houston power ballads on full blast. My boyfriend [the actor Matt Smith] sent me some Keith Jarrett, this soulful jazz pianist. I used that when Natasha’s realising what she’s lost.’ James’s favourite moment was the Tsar’s ball in St Petersburg. ‘We were in Catherine Palace, where it really would have happened, and when the orchestra recorded the music for Andrei and Natasha’s waltz, the acoustic was so magical that the last note went on for about a minute.’  

Outside in the sun, Norton, 29, tells me about a meeting he had with Lev Dodin, the artistic director of the Maly Drama Theatre. ‘He’s a massive deal, and through a translator he told me that [Russians] never have anyone below 40 playing Andrei because his “circles of contemplation” are too complex. He said one thing in English as he was leaving, which was, “Oh, James? Good luck.” It was a real sense of, “This is our Hamlet – don’t f­— it up.”’

 ‘That’s probably my favourite part of what I do,’ he says. ‘I didn’t finish college but I took Russian- literature courses. [When I got the part] I thought, “Now instead of paying to study this book I can live it out.”’ He was, he admits, ‘plenty intimidated’ by the project. ‘It’s a bear of a part and required a big commitment and a long time away from home. Luckily we had such a good group of people on set.

Read the rest of the Telegraphs article here  

War and Peace debuts here on January 18th on Lifetime, A&E and the History Channel.