In this film, loosely based on the historical novel by Jay Parini and adapted by writer-director Michael Hoffman, Tolstoy is almost a pawn between Sofya and his flattering and self-serving disciple Chertov (played with villainous relish by Paul Giamatti), whom Sofya holds in utter contempt. Subplots center on Tolstoy's new assistant Valentin (James McAvoy) and Valentin's love for the free-spirited Masha (Kerry Condon), and Sofya's unhappy relationship with her adult daughter (Anne-Marie Duff) who clearly favors Dad. All the supporting actors are fine, but McAvoy is especially convincing as an innocent whose views are challenged at every turn.
It's a biased film: Sofya's politics and position are clearly the most rational, while Tolstoy often emerges as a doddering old fool bordering on senility; and Chertov is the clownish heavy, twirling his mustache, beady eyes darting from side to side. The stars' acting is somewhat over-the-top, yet it's done with such unabashed abandon one can't help loving it—and it befits the characters. Consider Sofya's response when she realizes Tolstoy has dumped her. Wandering onto her estate's pier, she works herself into a frenzied fit and rolls into the lake where she has to be fished out, choking and coughing. It is a remarkable bit of larger-than-life acting that has its comic elements but is never self-mocking. It is to Hoffman's credit that he can get grand-scale performances from his actors that are believable, within parameters, and always fun.
Written and directed by: Michael Hoffman
Starring: Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, Paul Giamatti, Kerry Condon, Anne-Marie Duff, James McAvoy