Horrible Histories

January 24, 2016


Starting the same week as RTE’s Rebellion, it was easy for BBC’s War & Peace to obliterate the competition when it came to making a first impression. A proper, all-star cast playing characters that could stand up to the celebrity playing them. Stunning exteriors and interiors of the Russian palaces and country retreats that hosted balls and bacchanals that dripped with fur, glittered with bling and featured beautiful people that were sloshed on snobbery. While the gripping fight scenes actually stimulated the sense of being in the middle of a battlefield, as opposed to being on the outskirts of a suburban estate with the bangers going off in the distance.

Based on what’s considered to be one of the greatest novels of all time, it also had the advantage of not being a scripted shitshow, brimming with simplistic reductions of political ideologies, historical inaccuracies that undercut -rather than charged, the drama and characters so threadbare they fail to engage on any level.

But as both shows hit their midway point, Rebellion’s soapy histrionics are being pulled up by a cast who fly through the action like stray bullets, making accidental emotional impact as they ricochet from one implausible set piece to the next.

Frances (Ruth Bradley) and Jimmy’s (Brian Gleeson) Sorkin-like sprint to- and from, a gun battle was charged by an almost psychotic determination from the performers, who sold their characters as brilliantly bad ass, with no time left for us- or them, to dwell on their shocking actions, so caught up were we in a whirligig of WTF.

Jimmy’s blood debt was equally well played by Gleeson in the most telegraphed screen death since that girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List. Charlie Murphy brought worn-out warmth to her role as the Rising’s Florence Nightingale, as well as to her dealings with her lay about brother (Michael Ford Fitzgerald), lending the show’s most underdeveloped subplot a sheen of poignancy.

While the cloying campness of May’s (Sarah Greene) tête-à-tête with her lovers wife (Perdita Weeks) were so smugly over the top, they acted like the tart’s cart, displaying just how honky the produce we were watching had become.

Removed of the expectation of quality, the sheer quantity of silliness in Rebellion is turning it into a really enjoyable hate-watch. Take a shot every time a Brit malevolently twirls their moustache. Down your drink when an actual historical character turns up and behaves like something out of a Red Scare newsreel. Throw it at the screen every time Colin Teevan looks like he is going to develop one of the central characters, but instead disappears down an inconsequential narrative rabbit hole. (NO ONE CARE’S ABOUT INGRID!!!)

Even the #Rebellion is improving now everyone and their mother has gotten over the fact that the casting director didn’t push the boat out beyond what she had on her books for Love/Hate.

War & Peace, meanwhile, is starting to buckle under the task of condensing the 1,300-page novel into 6 hour-long episodes. As characters hop in and out of each other’s private parts- or at the very least moon about doing so, interchangeable characters make interchangeable proposals; years pass as quickly as characters switch their ideologies and nothing seems to be the slightest bit consequential. It’s like a very high quality soap opera that waltzes round and round in its own vacuum, devoid of the seeds it sprung from.

Charting the sex and social lives of aristocratic Russians during the Napoleonic Invasions, it’s beautiful to look at, while Martin Phipps orthodox-choral score is comparable to Wendy Carlos’s work on The Shinning, with it’s droning sense of dread.

But it’s all fur coat, no knickers, with a draft blowing where our connection to the characters once lay. What- in the early episodes, seemed like solid charecterisation, now feels increasingly like stereotype, with no true sense of familiarity or feeling between the characters.

Paul Dano makes a solid impression as Pierre Bezukhov, the bastard son who ascends to the top of society, learning to balance his own wealth and privilege with the betterment of society. Tom Burke is equally excellent as the villainous but layered Dolokov, who bang’s his mates Mrs and then accepts the weaker man’s challenge to a dual.

Stephen Rea and Gillian Anderson have fun as venal manipulators of all they survey. Brian Cox and Jim Broadbent pop up as a cantankerous General and curmudgeonly father. While Rebecca Front (The Thick of It) is joyfully self-serving as Bezukhov’s early guide, helping him negotiate the moral quandaries of a Bastard’s place in this world.

But the younger characters, though both pretty and talented, aren’t given enough to do by screenwriter Andrew Davies, for us to invest in them. The only real stand out among them is Ireland’s Jessie Buckley as Masha, the timid sister of one of the shows stable of chiseled studs… though the stunning Lily James as Natasha Rostov vacillates between being intriguing and annoying.

Not enough war and too much peace is starting to hamper this glorious looking fop fest. With the passing of Downton into televisual history, this epic is beginning to look like the Emperor’s New Clothes, with an increasingly flabby body.

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