Cast: James McAvoy, Christopher Plummer, Paul Giamatti, Helen Mirren, Anne-Marie Duff
The last years of Tolstoy’s life have provided endless fascination for biographers and novelists alike. The great novelist’s new found commitment to asceticism, his estrangement from his wife and family and his growing repugnance of wealth and fame, made him a figure of enormous interest in pre-War Russia. An entire Tolystoyan movement, based on his precepts of abstinence and renunciation of worldly goods, arose in Russia in the early years of the 20th Century, a testament to the power of author’s commanding personality and literary influence.
The one thing that those who profess to know something about the life of Tolstoy all agree upon, is that he died in a remote railway station , far from his own large estate in central Russia, supposedly fleeing both his wife and his life of privilege. Dressed as a Russian peasant and with only a small coterie of friends and admirers, he ended his life a virtual fugitive from his own legacy.
This movie centers on the events which led to that flight – the battle for Tolstoy’s written legacy. It was waged by his wife Sofya Andreyevna – who wanted the copyrights for his great books to remain within the family, and his leading disciple Vladimir Cherkov – who believed that the copyrights belonged to Mother Russia ( ie: the public domain). Torn between them is Tolstoy’s newly appointed 23- year -old secretary, Valentin Bulgakov, who appreciates both Cherkov’s and Sofya’s points of view, but ultimately sides with Tolstoy’s histrionic wife. It is often painful to watch the desperation with which the broken Sofya throws herself upon her husband of 48 years, still passionately in love with him and yet unconvinced that her aging husband has any further use for her.
In this dramatic pas de deux, the acting of Christopher Plummer ( remembered 45 years ago as the suave Captain Von Trapp from The Sound of Music) provides an extraordinarily convincing Tolstoy, emiting his mystical , if confused philosophy and portraying the author as a tragic figure who has lost control of his own destiny. Helen Mirren, still quite alluring at 65, plays the tempestuous , devoted Sofya, whose jarring mood swings dominate the movie. The ever versatile Paul Giamatti plays the devious Cherkov with enough verve and determination to make us remember his extraordinary performance in HBO’s triumphant series, John Adams. And finally James McAvoy ( remembered for The Last King of Scotland) plays the ingenuous Bulgakov who innocently stumbles into a struggle of wills for which he is totally unprepared.
The movie does tend to drag in place and the scenes in which the virginal Bulgakov is seduced by the free spirited Tolstoyan Masha, seems out of place in the movie and adds a love interest that distracts from the truly passionate struggle between Tolstoy and Sofya.
The success of the movie is that we end feeling for both Tolstoy and his wife , who seem unable to thwart the lot that fate has thrown them. Tolstoy emerges , not as the author of the book that is universally regarded as the greatest work of fiction ever composed, but as a latter day aesthete, carried away by his own imagination and philosophies, which had very little to do with a world that only four years later would plummet into a desperate world war. That war would sweep away forever the world Tolstoy, his wife and their coterie had known, making their ideas of passive resistance and universal love, hopelessly out of step with the time. Tolstoy had longed to be remembered , not for the magnificent literary achievements of War and Peace and Anna Karennina but for his moral philosophy. That is one legacy, however, time has yet to grant him. And perhaps we should be thankful for it.