| The ensemble cast puts on an acting showcase in this historical drama written and directed by Michael Hoffman (“Restoration” and “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”).
Based on the 1990 novel by Jay Parini, the film explores the turbulent final year in the life of Russian writer and philosopher Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer from “The Insider” and “The Man Who Would Be King”).
The movie could pass as a finely crafted stage play. The simple premise is a tug of war between Tolstoy’s wife of 48 years, Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren from “The Queen” and “Gosford Park”) and Tolstoy’s trusted disciple and righthand man, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giammati from “The Illusionist” and HBO’s “John Adams” miniseries), over the rights to the literary works (including “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”) and vast estate of this great man regarded as a living saint.
Chertkov represents the interests of the Russian people. Sofya wants the estate to stay within the family, passing to her as surviving spouse and then to their 13 children.
Besides being a devoted wife, Sofya has been a passionate lover, muse and secretary to this man with a long bushy white beard and mustache. She has even copied “War and Peace” by hand six times. She uses every trick of seduction in her feminine arsenal to deter her husband from signing a new will.
At the opening of the film, Chertkov is under house arrest in Moscow and precluded from seeing Tolstoy. He hires the young, ambitious writer Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy from “The Last King of Scotland”), to be Tolstoy’s private secretary. Valentin keeps a diary of what is going on at Tolstoy’s private country mansion located nearby a commune of devoted followers. He serves as the eyes and ears of the audience into this private world.
Although Valentin practices celibacy, he can’t resist the seductive charms of Masha (Kerry Condon from “Rome”), a cute and spunky fellow comrade. Valentin’s blossoming romance is contrasted with the feisty love-hate relationship between Tolstoy and his wife.
Mirren is simply marvelous, giving an acting tour de force. She compares her plight to a woman in an opera who feels abandoned by the man she loves. Plummer shows off his thespian gifts, going from a jovial and carefree existence to explosive shouting matches with his conniving wife.
One of many great scenes between Mirren and Plummer involves her craving for love and affection. Mirren declares that she is the little bird waiting to hear the “cock a doodle doo” love call of her mate.
The movie’s strengths include a beautiful country setting, a wonderful musical score and great lines of dialogue. The title is derived from the end point of a railroad line.
Hoffman, a former Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, shows a meticulous touch for getting every detail just right. After viewing the completed film, which took 18 drafts and 20 years before reaching the big screen, Parini said, “My vision – as embodied in the novel – had been well served. I felt damn lucky.”
Mirren and Plummer are nominated for Academy Awards in the respective categories of best actress and best supporting actor after sim
ilar SAG and Golden Globe nods. The movie has also been nominated for five Independent Spirit Awards including best feature, best director and best screenplay. It has already won an award for best international literature adaptation. It has to be considered one of the best movies of 2009. It finally arrives for metropolitan Kansas City audiences with discerning tastes for quality filmmaking.
Opening at AMC Town Center 20 and Studio 30, the Glenwood Arts and the Cinemark Palace on the Plaza.
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"