Downton Abbey may be in its final season, but the pipeline of prestige TV flowing west across the Atlantic is a renewable resource. The BBC’s miniseries adaptation of War and Peace, airing in the U.S. on three related cable networks, is a surprisingly muscular adaptation of a book that’s sitting on many readers’ to-do lists.
The war in question feels both senseless (we’re thrust into Napoleon’s invasion with little more than a squib of onscreen text for context) and upsettingly real. And the moments of peace are hardly peaceable, given the currents of vanity and greed that motivate complex characters played by Gillian Anderson, a perfectly sly schemer, and Paul Dano, torn between youthful ideals and a growing sense of his adult power.
This is one of those shows in which Russians speak with British accents, but given the pacing, you’ll barely have a moment to think about it. Even scenes off the battlefield give the impression of walls closing in; one needn’t know the details of European history to get the sense that an era is ending.
The ambition on display is laudable; Leo Tolstoy’s novel is transformed into an entertainment product that moves with 21st century briskness. Maybe it’s time for Americans to send the U.K. some TV that merges literary class and gritty fun with such ease. Matthew Weiner’s Rabbit, Run, anyone?
Mondays at 9 p.m. E.T. from Jan. 18 to Feb. 8, on A&E, History and Lifetime
This appears in the January 25, 2016 issue of TIME.
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