BBC’s sexy take on War And Peace shocks Russians

Lily James plays heroine Natasha Rostova in BBC's War And Peace.
Lily James plays heroine Natasha Rostova in BBC's War And Peace.PHOTO: BBC ONE'S FACEBOOK

MOSCOW • With displays of cleavage, incest and torrid sex, the BBC’s new adaptation of War And Peace has startled Russians, even if many liked its “clever” take on Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel.

The racy love scenes, notably, came as a shock in a country where television tends more towards the prudish.

A “classic with cleavage”, was how the Saint Petersburg-based news website Fontanka.ru dubbed writerAndrew Davies’ treatment of the 1869 masterpiece, starring Lily Jamesand Paul Dano.

The dress of one actress was cut so low, it looked like her breasts “would fall on the dinner plate”, it said.

In Britain, the show drew wild applause – and six million spectators – when the first of six episodes premiered on television this month.

Though it is not yet known when it will air in Russia, many Russians got a sneak preview watching online or while visiting Britain.

War And Peace, which spans 15 years and details the impact of the Napoleonic invasion of Tsarist Russia through the eyes of five aristocratic families, is taken extremely seriously in its homeland where its staggering 1,000- plus pages are compulsory reading in schools.

Davies, by his own admission, chucked out the sprawling subplots and pumped up the spicy bits, such as the hint of incest between the sister and brother Anatole Kuragin (Callum Turner) and Helene Kuragin (Tuppence Middleton).

“The promised incest scene came in the first episode,” wrote Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid, offering a “hint of scandal”.

But “Anatole strokes his sister under a blanket”, it said. The “prim English evidently decided not to arouse the feelings of literature lovers” by “not showing the viewers everything”.

Critics were equally tongue-incheek about a sizzling encounter in a dining room in the second episode.

“On a formally laid table, the cutlery shakes rhythmically while... the passionate Fedya Dolokhov, eyes shining insolently, thrusts himself upon the rapturous Bezukhova,” said Fontanka.ru.

“Now,” it added, “the great novel will not only be more accessible, but also more interesting” to Russian students.

The traditional media said the BBC series fell far short of a more strait-laced Soviet production of War And Peace, which won an Oscar in 1969.

“It’s not a patch on Sergei Bondarchuk’s famous film,” wrote government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

Davies’ version lacks a “reverential attitude to the text”, it said, and looks like a “medium-budget soap opera” focusing on “conversations about love, the tinkle of glasses and sweeping balls” rather than suffering and the soul.

For the Izvestia daily, the series reduced the great novel to “erotica and spectacular battle scenes” and lost Tolstoy’s philosophising.

Actress James, as one of the main heroines Natasha Rostova, failed to impress.

She “just wears a fringe and smiles in a cute way”, said listing website Afisha.

Dano’s performance as Pierre Bezukhov, however, was “the main success of the series”, said news site Meduza.ru, “an absolutely exact match and probably the most fleshed-out character”.

The other central character, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, is played by James Norton.

Noting that Davies has already adapted Jane Austen novels, such as Pride And Prejudice (1995), some critics said he turned the weightier Tolstoy into a similar 19th-century costume drama of the kind theBBCis famed for.

They also felt the series, filmed partly in Russia, including the former imperial city of Saint Petersburg, failed to capture the mood of Tsarist Russia.

James’ obviously dyed hair and the characters’ bubbly public hugging and kissing jarred with the reality of Russian aristocracy of the time, they said.

“The adaptation lacks the most important thing: atmosphere,” wrote Izvestia. It evokes “neither that of a Russian village, nor glittering Saint Petersburg, nor hospitableand extravagant Moscow”.

“Saint Petersburg was hardly recognisable,” wrote Meduza.ru.

The series is clearly aimed at those who have not read the book “and are unlikely ever to do so”, wrote Afisha.

But it was “fresh, bombastic, beautiful and clever in a British way”, it conceded.

AGENCEFRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2016, with the headline 'BBC’s sexy take on War And Peace shocks Russians'. Print Edition | Subscribe