Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Either you like the works of famous Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy or you don't. I haven't cracked open the enormous tome on which this miniseries is based, but from the sheer story elements on screen I fully understand why some consider it the greatest novel of all time. As much of a love story as a historical account of the Napoleonic invasion, it is sweeping, romantic, and epic.
Natasha (Clemence Poesy) knows she loves him the instant her eyes meet his across the room. Prince Andrej (Alessio Boni) is everything she dreams of in a husband, except he's married. So, the teenage girl puts aside her romantic dreams and contents herself with her friendship with Pierre (Alexander Beyer), the illegitimate son of a local nobleman. On his deathbed, the nobleman legitimizes Pierre and makes him his heir. Overwhelmed with new responsibilities and a society that has never accepted him until now, Pierre is swiftly overcome with attraction to the flirtatious and beautiful Helene (Violante Placido). Their marriage coincides with a misfortune in Andrej's life, as after surviving the war, he returns home to find his wife dead of childbirth complications.
In time, he is reunited with Natasha and intends to marry her, but his eccentric father insists a year pass before he considers marriage. His long-suffering sister Marja (Valentina Cervi) agrees to look after his infant son while he is assigned to a long-term position in the Russian military. In his absence Pierre's marriage gets complicated, Natasha's family faces financial woes, she endures the attentions of a dashing young officer with diabolical intentions, and Napoleon considers an invasion.
Russian novels are full of dozens of characters and rich with the history of the period. This miniseries does a superb job of investing our interest in the characters and slowly revealing the nuances of Tolstoy's unique approach, which is known for its subtle but powerful Christian undertones. Redemption and forgiveness are a big theme in this work, but equally so, different understandings of love, such as a gradual understanding of the difference between infatuation and patient adoration. Due to the long names and many characters, it can be difficult at the beginning to remember who is related to who and to keep names straight, but overall it sticks to the main characters very well. Like all good tales, the characters are never perfect and even our favorites make mistakes. We scream in frustration at them but also empathize with them in their misfortunes, but most of all we want them to have a happy ending.
This miniseries was filmed in its native language and dubbed over in English, which unfortunately does rob certain moments of its emotional impact, but it has a terrific cast (a few of the performances are a little flat) and gorgeous costuming. It was filmed on an epic scale without ever treading too heavily into problematic elements (implications of adultery are spoken of but not shown in graphic detail). Interested audiences who haven't the patience to wade through ten thousand or so pages but might like the series should know that not everyone lives to the final frame, but it does have a happy ending, one I found more emotionally satisfying than I anticipated. My only complaint is that this miniseries isn't available in America, so you'll either have to find it online or import it. But if you choose to do so, I think you'll find it as engaging as I did.
Many of the Regency gowns involve large amounts of cleavage; conversation about impregnating a girl out of wedlock; a man intends to seduce a woman and run away with her (he is secretly married to someone else); references to extramarital affairs; a woman is shown getting out of bed with a man she is not married to (she later dies of syphilis). The opening credits include partial nudity but nothing graphic (this scene in its entirety was mysteriously absent from the version I watched).
Half a dozen uses of "Oh my God!"
Many battle scenes in which men are shot and killed and/or blown up with cannons, but no gore. Two men have a duel and one is shot (very little blood). Some physical violence is threatened toward an unfaithful woman.
Social drinking and public drunkenness.