Valentin (McAvoy) is thrilled to become secretary to the worlds greatest living author, Count Leo Tolstoy (Plummer), only to be caught up in the turbulent complexities of Tolstoys life and marriage to Sofya (Mirren). While Valentin discovers life and l
Tolstoy’s War And peace contains the famous line, “Everything that I know, I know only because I love.” Evidently he knew quite a lot himself, especially that love may be many-splendoured but also maddening. On his country estate in 1910, the ailing Tolstoy’s long and tempestuous marriage entered its final crisis, avidly — and contradictorily — chronicled by at least six of the principals and on-lookers.
Tolstoy founded a movement espousing passive resistance, celibacy and abolishing private property. The film observes the bitter power struggle between his wife and disciples, the Tolstoyans (led by Paul Giamatti, conniving with sanctimonious ruthlessness as Vladimir Chertkov), who want the copyright to Tolstoy’s works bequeathed to them for their cause. Countess Sofya, who bore ‘Lev’ 13 children and copied out six drafts of War And Peace by hand, is not going to surrender her inheritance to the betterment of humanity quietly.
In this charged, beautifully nuanced situation, writer-director Michael Hoffman engagingly appoints as our eyes and ears Tolstoyan acolyte Valentin Bulgakov, an innocent prig who sneezes when he’s nervous. James McAvoy is enchanting, the bright-eyed enthusiast overwhelmed by his hero. His joy is bridled when Chertkov and his enemy, Sofya, each give Valentin diaries, with instructions to spy on the other and record everything. Taking flight from the domestic tribulations, Tolstoy gets as far as the remote railway station at Astapovo before rival factions for his favour and his soul catch up with him and the world’s media gather for the show.
Valentin’s progress is a pleasure. But for anyone who loves great acting, it’s the most delicious treat to watch Mirren and Plummer going at each other with all they’ve got, alternating fits of loathing and lust with cruelty, tenderness and supremely amusing repartee. Mirren’s Russian blood must have thrilled to a script that provides her ample opportunity to display imperious bearing, an operatic range of emotions and feminine wiles. Hers is the showpiece, but Plummer is also awesome, just less noisily so.
Handsome, engrossing, frequently very funny for a literary bio drama, and ultimately deeply moving, with pitch-perfect performances from one and all.