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At the beginning of the 20th century, War and Peace and Anna Karenina having made him the most respected writer of his time, the ageing Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), is surrounded by avid supporters of his pacifist movement - much to the annoyance of his Countess wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren), who is in conflict with Tolstoy's admirer and close friend, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). She believes the two men are plotting to rewrite his will so that his works will be inherited by the Russian people. Tolstoy's new secretary, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), is thrust into the middle of the fiery feud even as it explodes when Tolstoy decides to leave the chaos behind, taking a train south, accompanied by his physician and his daughter Sasha (Anne-Marie Duff). He gets as far as the remote little station of Astapovo, where his health deteriorates. Sofya tries to follow, but Chertkov stands in her way; reporters and locals gather around waiting for reports of his health - and Sofya makes another attempt to see him one last time.

Review by Louise Keller:
There's more war than peace in the tumultuous private world of the world's most celebrated author Leo Tolstoy. Based on the novel by Jay Parini, Michael Hoffman brings us a fascinating insight as he recounts a spellbinding previously untold story. Kermit the frog said 'It's not easy being green'; Tolstoy has a similar problem. There is a distinct difference between being Tolstoyan (following the love and freedom inspired beliefs he has instigated), and being Tolstoy the man, who loves his family and his theatrically dramatic wife. The heart of this complex tale lies in the pendulum-like relationship between Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) and Sofya (Helen Mirren) and watching these two consummate actors at work is a treat indeed.

Mirren easily steals the film bringing vivacity to the screen as Tolstoy's wife of 48 years. She is the life of his work, while he is the work of her life. Sofya could be termed the original drama queen and it is apt that in the dinner scene, when she makes a hell of a scene, the aria from Tosca is playing loudly on the gramophone. Juicy indeed, as like the moment when she threatens to give the media something to write about by throwing herself under a train, like Tolstoy's heroine Anna Karenina. But the range of their voluptuous relationship is affecting; their tender moments are surprising playful and touching.

Our journey into the last chapter of Tolstoy's life is through the eyes of James McAvoy's protagonist Valentin Bulgakov, who in 1910 is sent to the Tolstoy Estate to be the great man's secretary. Paul Giamatti's Vladimir Chertkov commissions the impressionable Bulgakov, whose frequent sneezing fits betray his nerves. McAvoy is excellent, as is Giamatti, whose Chertkov despises Sofya as much as she reciprocates ('If I had a wife like you, I would have blown my brains out or gone to America').

Bulgakov's coming of age is both cerebral and of the flesh, when he meets the free-spirited Masha (Kerry Condon, lovely), who lives on the commune but does not follow the rules. We see Bulgakov's disillusionment before it meets him head on as he becomes trapped between his ideals and the emotional insight he gleans from Sofya. Just as we are immersed in the black smoke that pours from the train as it nears the last station, we too are immersed in this intensely told and beautifully realised reality with its gorgeous settings and accurate depiction of the era. Highly recommended.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
A superb cast all at their best help breath life into this biographical story of the last chapter of writer and philosopher (and liberal leaning aristocrat) Leo Tolstoy, whose writings have influenced realist fiction since his mammoth work, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. The great man is reduced to living in the pool of his success as a philosopher who has inspired followers with the same fervour as fundamentalists display, an extremist version of the teachings. In this story, based on the novel by Jay Parini, the chief priest of his followers is his friend Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), despised by Tolstoy's wife Sofya (Helen Mirren) - and he despises her back. She is an unreformed aristocrat by comparison to her husband and - partly because she is somewhat younger - keen to retain his estate on his death. Chertkov is helping the great man change his will so that his works are owned by the Russian people. The idealism leads to bitterness, and when young innocent Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) is appointed as a new private secretary to his idol, he gets stuck in the middle.

Told mostly through Bulgakov's eyes, the story is as much about the complex, fiery and yet ultimately unbreakable bond between Tolstoy and Sofya, as it is about Tolstoyan philosophies - perhaps more so. Bulgakov, a virgin who is an adherent of Tolstoy's philosophies, is given a life lesson by one of the young women, Masha (Kerry Condon - a ripping, terrific performance). His loyalties are tested, his faith in Tolstoy realigned and his future forever changed by this brief experience.

Christopher Plummer creates a difficult, multi dimensional and altogether tangible Tolstoy, opposite whom Helen Mirren delivers a sensational performance as Sofya, a powderkeg of emotion and determination, all tempered by her deep love for her husband.

It's a love story, but a unique one; Michael Hoffman is clearly fascinated by the dynamic relationship of these two headstrong characters who jump out of the literary world and the history books to engage us with their rowdy, colourful tale. Wonderful production design and music help deliver an emotional journey that encourages further enquiry into the real characters who lived this story.

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(UK/Russia/Germany, 2009)

CAST: James McAvoy, Christopher Plummer, Paul Giamatti, Helen Mirren, Anne-Marie Duff, Kerry Condon, Patrick Kennedy, John Sessions, Nenad Lucic, Tomas Spencer

PRODUCER: Bonnie Arnold, Chris Curling, Jens Meurer,

DIRECTOR: Michael Hoffman

SCRIPT: Michael Hoffman (novel by Jay Parini)

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Sebastian Edschmid

EDITOR: Patricia Rommel

MUSIC: Sergei Yevtushenko

PRODUCTION DESIGN: Patrizia von Brandenstein

RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 18, 2010

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