Monday, 21 July 2008

War and Peace

Lowdown: From Russia with love.
Last Saturday we've had ourselves a special treat. We watched a film live off TV! The film was off ABC2, which meant there were no ad breaks. That really made it feel like those days of yonder when watching a film off Israel's only TV channel was the only way to watch a film past its cinematic release. This experience could only be rivaled by watching a new episode of Dallas! Anyway, the film we got to watch is not your average ordinary film: it was the 1956 rendition of Tolstoy's War and Peace, a three and a half hour long film. How can I put it? It was really strange to have to rush to the toilet in fear of missing out on key scenes. At least we didn't get any baby or phone interruptions.
W&P is set in early eighteen hundreds Russia as Napoleon was invading. It follows the lives of a bunch of Russian aristocrats led by Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda, and it puts me in a strange position where I need to explain how come a film so long has not that much of a plot. Well, it does, but its slow development and the lengthy length of individual scenes mean that I can't tell that much without spoiling it. Fonda is the illegitimate son of a major aristocrat who acquires recognition as his father dies and then marries an attractive woman just because he must have her but not because he loves her, which gets him in trouble. Hepburn, on her part, falls in love with a prince who got injured fighting Napoleon and whose life was saved by Napoleon himself but whose father thinks too lowly of Hepburn's family; their marriage is delayed with inevitable consequences. In the background, Napoleon advances through Russia and all is not the way it was before.
Three and a half hours into the film I realized W&P is just one long romantic story with the usual twists and tricks of the genre but with major bonuses: for a start, it's two hours longer than your average film romance. And second, it features some lavish settings and some war scenes that wouldn't shame today's CGI boosted crop. In fact, the war scenes do shame today's crop, because they show just how annoying CGI is and how good looking movies can be when they done for real. Or for realer, at least.
Now I wouldn't go and analyze what it is that Tolstoy is trying to tell us through this epic. I suffer from a well developed phobia of major Russian novels, spawned by having to read Crime and Punishment during high school. Despite repeated attempts I couldn't make it through this boring torture and ended up reading the short summary instead. I even read a book devoted to Crime and Punishment questions and answers in preparation for my high school tests, and I have to hand it to the summary and those Q&A sessions - my final literature score was quite high.
Back to Tolstoy, what I will say is that despite the movie's length I never felt bored and never wanted the film to let go: it was a pleasant watch and a well made period film that felt quite authentic even though it was clearly robbed of some of the period's rough edges. To explain by example: in a film this long and this thorough, you'd expect to see someone going to the toilet.
Memorable scene: Hepburn and her prince think of one another. Yes, they think out loud. Each of them is on her/his own, staring at the camera without moving and with nothing else taking place, and you hear their thoughts. I don't recall films portraying thoughts this way before; I guess it's a method that would be too demanding on today crowd's patience.
Overall: It doesn't really go anywhere but it goes well. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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