Imagine a time, about a century ago, where a writer — a very literary writer — was every bit as besieged by the 1910-era paparazzi and the general public as Angelina Jolie or Lindsay Lohan. Wherever they go, they are photographed and filmed, whatever they say is furiously scribbled down in notebooks and journals. This was Leo Tolstoy’s experience near the end of his life.
Recognized as a genius all over the world, and venerated as a neo-Saint in his native Russia, Tolstoy (here played by Christopher Plummer) spends the greater part of this time in his country manse, writing political tracts about finding freedom in our lives, and bickering with his wife as to his plans for the copyright on his collected works. His long-suffering wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren), fears that her husband will give in to his good friend and confidant Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), and release the copyright entirely, bequeathing his work to the people of the world, leaving, essentially, nothing for her and his family other than the mansion. In this middle of this tug-of-war is the new secretary, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), hired by Chertkov to help him keep an eye on Sofya and know “everything” that happens at the mansion. As Valentin contends with both sides — while spending as much time as possible helping Tolstoy, his personal hero — he also happens to fall in love with another of Tolstoy’s followers, Masha (Kerry Condon), a free spirited woman who challenges everything Valentin believes in.
Director Michael Hoffman, who also wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Jay Parini, has a good touch with his extremely talented cast. Mirren, in particular, attacks the role of the serio-dramatic Sofya (“I don’t count anymore”) with verve and gusto, and Plummer, unsurprisingly, makes for a radiant Tolstoy, a man for whom peace and simplicity — the thing he most yearns for — is the furthest thing from his grasp. But the surprising standout is McAvoy, who does some of his best work yet for the screen. Innocent and shell-shocked, Valentin is the lynchpin of the whole piece, the one figure able to convey to all sides their role in the great writer’s life — and eventual death. In the end of his life, desperately searching for a moment of tranquility, Tolstoy fled his wife and his mansion and tried, in vain, to spend his last days away from the monumental life he had created for himself. Unsurprisingly, the gambit failed, as Tolstoy became too sick to travel, and as word spread of his location, he was again besieged by press and well-wishers concerned for his health. His celebrity, it turned out, was unavoidable. It was, after all, exactly Tolstoy’s everyman quality, along with his obvious literary brilliance, that lead him to be as venerated as he was: Raised up to A-list superstar status, he still never lost his keen interest in the world around him.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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