Starring: Christopher Plummer, Paul Giamatti, Anne-Marie Duff and Helen Mirren
Runtime: 112 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
The action of this beautifully made drama takes place in 1910, the last year of Tolstoy’s life. War and Peace and Anna Karenina are long behind him. In his later years, he developed more socialist and utopian ideas, delved into the different religions and promoted a humanist and egalitarian perspective on life before the 1917 revolution. He had devout disciples who put him on a pedestal, promoted his writings and teaching as if he were a prophet. Many went to live and work in the communes. This is the background to the personal story of his last months.
Christopher Plummer, turning 80, is still a strong screen presence and gives Tolstoy an energy, a compulsiveness to thing, to work, to publish and to support his disciples. His principal disciple is Vladmir Chertkov, played by Paul Giamatti. He is an enthusiast but a man (under suspicion from and confined to his house by the Moscow authorities) who lives in his head despite his enthusiastic feelings. He is an ideologue who has put Tolstoy, who is his close friend, on a pedestal, even wanting to orchestrate the way Tolstoy would die so that it would make impact on his followers and on the whole world (with crowds of journalists camping outside the station in southern Russia where Tolstoy was dying).
That being said, it should be emphasised that this is also a film about Tolstoy’s wife, Sofya, the Countess who valued her status and way of life, disagreed with many of the principles of the husband she loved, detested Chertkov and his friends. She was hypersensitive, prone to tantrums and hysteria, jealous of her husband’s friendships and fanatical about his will and the preserving of property for her children. She is played by Helen Mirren in a marvellous tour-de-force.
One of the children is Sasha (Anne-Marie Duff) who works for her father and takes stands against her mother.
But the film is also about Tolstoy’s young secretary, Valentin Bulgakov, also a young idealist hired by Chertkov and who is welcomed into the household by both Tolstoy and Sofya. A prim young man, he is mocked by Masha who lives in the commune, but is also seduced and falls in love with her. McAvoy also gives a fine nuanced performance.
The film does not have the dramatic drive of Tolstoy’s novels. Rather, it offers an opportunity for the audience to enter into an unfamiliar world, meet arresting (and sometimes irritating) characters and learn about a different era and different ideas. Director Michael Hoffman also made the very interesting period drama about the era of Charles II in England, Restoration.
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