War and Peace, Episode 6, TV review: Far better than your average Downton-style Sunday bodice ripper

Spoiler alert: Binge watch if on iPlayer quick if you've missed out 

The conclusion to Andrew Davies’ remarkable adaptation of Tolstoy’s tale of invasion and aristocracy saw us lose some of the ‘phwoar’ in War and Peace.

But the deaths of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (James Norton), from an infected battle wound, and Countess Hélène Kuragina (Tuppence Middleton), from an attempted abortion, left the way clear for an ending so sugary and sunlit most viewers will forgive the fact that Andrew Davies chose not to make Norton do full frontal nudity (last week’s row wouldn’t have happened if it had been the Happy Valley star who forgot his swimsuit at the bathing hole).

Davies admitted an interview with The Telegraph that War and Peace should have been eight parts rather than six. I can’t help but agree as, although until tonight’s episode the 1,400 pages of the novel had been paced remarkably well considering, the conclusion feels a little rushed.

However, if anyone thought Lily James was just a pretty face then the complexity, nuance and heartbreak of her Natasha will surely silence them. The Cinderella and Downton Abbey actress wins the standout performance of the series award – and competing with the obstreperous Jim Broadbent (Prince Bolkonsky) and Adrian Edmondson’s loveable Count Rostov, that’s saying something.

Natasha’s transition from carefree daughter with a huge heart to a careworn fallen woman has been plotted carefully and believably. Her reconciliation with Andrei, who is recuperating in the house of the Rostovas after they are forced to flee Moscow, is heart-wrenchingly sad. Her lovely face seems to chart the horrors and she becomes drawn, the life sucked out of her, as the charmed life she was born into is chipped away by Napoleon’s invasion.

Last week’s episode brought the brutal conflict of the French Emperor’s march on Russia into sharp relief and tonight’s programme continued apace with firing squads, peasants beaten in the street and as much blood as an episode of Game of Thrones. Not to mention the head-in-hands moment when Rostovas’ fresh-faced 15-year-old son is butchered, leaving crimson on snow.

But it was the quiet endurance of Paul Dano’s Pierre that cut the most striking narrative. His time as a prisoner of the French, forced to accompany them on their retreat, but finding solace in a fellow prisoner, an ordinary man who neither knew nor cared that the man he was sharing his last scraps of food with was a Count. 

The pathos of this chapter of Pierre's life – not mention the irony of his rescue by the pantomime villain Dolokhov (Tom Burke) – is cemented in the way that, like Natasha, he takes the wounds inflicted on him and uses them to reflect on the wounds he has committed on others.

That the final 15 minutes is a great rush of people who love each other getting together is no great shame, but the sense of pace is a bit off with it appearing that Natasha is still in recent mourning for Andrei when Pierre proposes. In fact a great deal of time has elapsed.

This is a series far better than your average Downton-style Sunday bodice ripper. It might not have the chemistry between Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle that kept people talking about Pride and Prejudice for 20 years. But James’ performance alone will stand the test of time. Binge watch if on iPlayer quick if you've missed out.

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