Written & Directed by: Michael Hoffman based on the book by Jay Parini
This film illuminates a bit of the life of Count Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), philosopher, political activist, and one of the greatest writers of all time. It focuses on the tumultuous relationship between him and his wife Sofya (Helen Mirren).
It opens in 1910, the last year of Tolstoy’s life. The Tolstoyan movement, which repudiates private property and advocates passive resistance to the government, has taken hold, with Tolstoyan communes blossoming throughout Russia.
In Moscow, Tolstoy’s disciple, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) hires Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) to be Tolstoy’s secretary. Valentin is 23 years old, naive, and idealistic, and he’s already embraced the aesthetic life dictated by the Tolstoyans, which includes strict celibacy and vegetarianism. Chertkov warns him that the Tolstoyans face a difficult battle against the czar, the church and, above all, Countess Sofya, who refuses to relinquish her attachment to private property.
Valentin soon finds himself caught in the middle of the struggle between Chertkov and Sofya. Each of them manipulates Valentin, instructing him to keep a journal, gathering information that can be used against each other. When he meets Sofya, she expresses opinions he must find appalling, belitting the peasants and showing indifference to their plight. Nevertheless she inspires his sympathy. Having spent her life bearing Tolstoy’s thirteen children and collaborating with him on his writing, she is powerless as she faces the prospect of his relinquishing all their property for the good of mankind. Furthermore, she’s surrounded by her husband’s acolytes, who invade their lives and treat her as the enemy. “These so-called disciples of my husband,” she laments. “They don’t understand a word he’s ever written. What do they know of love?”
At the same time, Valentin is conflicted over prudish adherence to Tolstoy’s ideals, especially celibacy, which the great man himself has never practiced. Valentin sees people clinging fanatically to the rules of Tolstoyism, forgetting the heart of the philosophy, which is love for one’s fellow man. This is ironic, considering this is a group of people who have mindfully rejected organized religion to focus on their own ideology, focused tightly on Christ’s actual teachings.
Meanwhile, we watch Leo’s relationship with Sofya, which fluctuates between tenderness and passion and intense rage. Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren create complex characters. Leo is a great thinker and a very flawed man. He is a fascinating character, with arrogance and insensitivity tangled with wisdom, compassion, and humility. Sofya is often histrionic and manipulative yet, at moments, she shows deep love and quiet dignity. The acting in this film was extraordinary, in my opinion, and I found the film very entertaining. And while I wished it had delved a bit more deeply into the political and historical events of the time, it was rich with interesting historical details.
We see the technology of the era, including the telegraph and phonograph, settings and costumes fitting the period and, as one reviewer pointed out, small details like the Russian habit of sucking on a spoonful of jelly to sweeten tea.There is also a wealth of terrific dialogue here, including Tolstoy’s line: “My manifesto against the government is hard work. The government commits idiotic abuses faster than I can catalogue them.” This movie illuminates the line between idealism and fanaticism, as when one of Tolstoy’s followers is shocked that his hero killed an annoying mosquito. “Isn’t that a violation of your commitment to nonviolence and vegetarianism?” In a moment of humor and humility, Tolstoy responds, “You’re a much better Tolstoyan than I am.”
It explores the conflict between care for one’s spouse and family and dedication to the good of mankind. Few great men and women have managed to successfully engineer this balance. This film also looks at the nature of marriage. As one reviewer stated, it’s: “a vivid, moving picture about the difficulty of living with love and the impossibility of living without it. It’s not a film about Tolstoy. It’s a film about the challenges of love.” It ponders the tremendous amount of commitment and work a marriage requires: “Why should it it be easy?” Sofya asks. “I am the work of your life and you’re the work of mine. That’s what love is.”