April 1, 2010 -- The Russian soul is deep and melancholy, a result of Russia's tortured past, filled with horror and loss on a scale unimaginable to most of those living in England and America. So who else but English and American actors attempt to plumb the haunted depths of the conflicted soul of Russia's greatest writer, Leo Tolstoy? Fortunately, England and America have some great actors and they are on display in this interesting portrait of the last months in the life of the great Russian writer and philosopher.
According to the movie, Tolstoy was the greatest writer of his day and he inspired a utopian philosophical movement of his own, even though Tolstoy himself (played by Christopher Plummer of “Inside Man”) didn't exactly follow his own teachings. The Tolstoyans, led by Tolstoy's friend Vladimir Chertkov, believed in a form of pure Christianity, based on the teachings of Christ. These Christian anarchists avoided politics and violence. They were pure pacifists. The Tolstoyan movement influenced the great Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi. The conflict in this particular story comes from the fact that Chertkov (played by Paul Giamatti of “Sideways”) is trying to get Tolstoy to change his will to leave the bulk of his estate to the Tolstoyan movement. Tolstoy's wife, Sofya (Hellen Mirren of “The Queen”) wants the bulk of the estate to remain with the family. Oddly enough, she is opposed by her own daughter, Sasha (Anne-Marie Duff of “Notes on a Scandal”) who is an entrenched member of the Tolstoyans.
Into the middle of this intense family argument walks the unsuspecting and naive young Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy of “Atonement”), the new assistant to Tolstoy. He is essentially acting as a spy for his mentor, Vladimir Chertkov. He quickly develops a friendship with both Tolstoy and his wife. He also becomes less convinced that Chertkov has the best interests of the Tolstoy family at heart. Chertkov, and even Sasha, are pretty cold fish, while Leo Tolstoy and Sofya are passionately in love, despite their frequent quarrels. Bulgakov becomes even more confused when he falls madly in love with another young Tolstoyan, Masha (Kerry Condon of “Angela's Ashes”). He begins to question the foundation of his Tolstoyan beliefs.
The acting is excellent by this very capable cast, and the story is interesting. The cinematography, by Sebastian Edschmid (Adam Resurrected) is also excellent. The outdoor scenes are lush and gorgeous. I learned a lot about Tolstoy and the Tolstoyan movement by watching this film. The characters are interesting and they come alive for this epic power struggle. The ending is sad, as one might expect. The power struggle does a lot of damage to those engaged in it. The story's aftermath is told as the film's credits begin to roll, and that too, is interesting. Apparently, some Tolstoyans are still around, despite the Russian revolution, the battles between the Red and White armies and the two world wars and the deadly purges of Stalin that followed the time period of this film. That is amazing in itself. This film rates a B.
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