Rating: 3 out of 5
Whenever someone approaches the “last station” of one’s life, it is understandable that one may look back and wonder about the preceding journey.
For Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), the aged literary giant whose last year of life is captured in this biographical film by director Michael Hoffman, getting to that last station has been a grind.
Living in the countryside commune surrounded by his followers, a recluse from his adoring public, he is in the throes of a tumultuous marriage that has seemingly run its course.
While some of his most fervent supporters are intent on persuading him to renounce the copyright to his works, his wife, the Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren), is hell-bent on protecting what she sees as his and her joint legacy – he had produced his greatest works with her by his side.
Hoffman’s film, which he adapted for the screen from a novel by Jay Parini, is the platform for two vivid portrayals, that of Tolstoy and Sofya, by dependable, pedigreed actors. For the most part, Plummer and Mirren are a joy to watch; he the kindly and somewhat mischievous free spirit, she the highly strung, histrionic, cynical and paranoid observer.
The idiosyncrasies of the Tolstoy clan are viewed through the eyes of a naive private secretary (James McAvoy) hired by the staunch Tolstoyan, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), to presumably assist the great writer develop his ongoing works.
Using the nervous secretary, who plays out the conflict between Tolstoy’s philosophical and religious views and his latter-day misgivings, by falling in love with a commune comrade (Kerry Condon), as the entry point to this story is perhaps the script’s weakest element.
McAvoy, a talented actor in his own right, is meek and inconsequential when placed alongside Mirren and Plummer, whose much-lauded performances had earned both plenty of awards consideration this year.
Their scenes of conflict brim with passion and considerable screen presence; he seems merely a piece for comic relief and a plain counterfoil for his more-illustrious co-stars’ scene-chewing moments – a literal babe in the wood who unwittingly becomes associated with an historic event, Tolstoy’s death.
The machinations in the story may be based on true events, and fascinate for a while. But by the final third of the film, as it chugs toward an inevitable conclusion, much of the dramatic tension has dissipated.
All the rhetoric and fierce arguments that marked the last days of Tolstoy’s life, as he pleaded to no avail for peace to do his work, seemed to ring hollow. Some may have accorded him God-like status, but for all his achievements, he was just a man.
A man who wondered what his life had amounted to, regardless of what others decided for him, a man who questioned his long-held beliefs, and a man who was once deeply in love, and in mourning at the loss of that mad love.
It is heady stuff at times, thanks to Plummer and Mirren, and in small part, Condon and McAvoy, but at the end of it all, the whole does not seem equal to the sum of its parts.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
"Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!"
– Michael Corleone, The Godfather Part III