Paul Dano, Lily James and James Norton star in the TV series War and Peace.
Paul Dano, Lily James and James Norton star in the TV series War and Peace. Mitch Jenkins

New BBC mini-series tackles Tolstoy

JAMES Norton had an unusual introduction to War and Peace before landing a role in the BBC's large-scale TV adaptation.

The actor was filming a scene for the crime drama Happy Valley when he first laid eyes on Leo Tolstoy's mammoth novel.

"The art department made the decision that when my character in Happy Valley disguised himself as a student that the book he chose to read was War and Peace," Norton tells APN.

"While we were sitting there waiting (between takes) I'd read the first 10 pages... it was a really bizarre introduction."

A year later he was cast as central character Andrei Bolkonsky and tackled the rest of War and Peace's 1430 pages.

"The first two hours of reading it, you get so bogged down," he says.

"But once it gets into the meat of the story it's a real soap opera. You've got five families and all of these kids from these families are falling in and out of love, and making mistakes that are totally familiar and identifiable for today's generation. They're all very recognisable characters.

James Norton stars as Prince Andrei in War and Peace.
James Norton stars as Prince Andrei in War and Peace. Mitch Jenkins

"Once you've got into the book it's an easy read because it's about people and Tolstoy writes people beautifully."

The BBC's six-part adaptation, penned by BAFTA Award-winning screenwriter Andrew Davies, follows Andrei, his good-natured friend Pierre (Paul Dano) and the beautiful Natasha (Lily James) as they grow up in St Petersburg against the backdrop of Russia's wars with Napoleon.

Andrei's romance with Natasha has already earned Norton the nickname of a "Russian Mr Darcy".

"At the read through, when all the cast get together for the first day, Andrew described how 'in walks this Russian Darcy' and in my head I was just thinking 'oh God'," Norton laughs.

"He's an amazing character. He is an impenetrable, very intelligent, very cynical, but ultimately compelling man. What I loved about Andrei is he's on the hunt for understanding about his purpose in life."

The lavish production took nearly six months to film and features some of Russia's most stunning landscapes.

"It's quite epic; that's the word that was used mostly in relation to the whole job," he says.

"The locations really were one of the most special parts of the job. One day we were filming these big, beautiful ballroom scenes in Saint Petersburg with 300 extras dancing around with a live orchestra.

"On another day Jim Broadbent and I were standing on this frozen lake and it went on as far as I could see and in the very, very back of the shot were people ice fishing in their huts. You could never recreate that in a studio."

The mini-series also stars Gillian Anderson, Brian Cox, Tom Burke, Tuppence Middleton and Aneurin Barnard.

War and Peace premieres on Sunday, January 31 at 7.30pm Qld, 8.30pm NSW on BBC First.

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