Into the story comes Bulgakov (James McAvoy) as the naïve new secretary found for Tolstoy by Chertkov and placed in Tolstoy’s house, Yasnaya Polyana, just so he can spy on Sofya and discredit her. However, Bulgakov becomes less naïve and more sympathetic to the old couple as the movie progresses and he learns the truth about their relationship and the power struggle between Sofya and Chertkov. This may be thanks in part to the love of a certain Masha (Kerry Condon) who shares a bed with him in the Tolstoyan commune set up by Chertkov (well, I suppose we weren’t going to have a sexy scene between Plummer and Mirren). Eventually, the atmosphere in the house becomes so intolerable that Tolstoy leaves Sofya. The film then proceeds through the countryside and by the Russian railway system to a dramatic conclusion at Astapova Station.
The director, Michael Hoffman, has charted this interesting tale with skill and understanding, using the talented cast to great effect. Plummer plays the literary giant with seeming accuracy, sensitivity, and an Oscar nomination to live up to, and Mirren, too, is worth her nomination for her clever portrayal of the slightly deranged and scheming Sofya. It’s a joy to watch them going at each other hammer and sickle, alternating their loathing with their memories of the lust they once enjoyed together. McAvoy does equally well with his role, capturing the changes in the perceptions of his character brilliantly. It is a pleasure to observe his progress through the film. Whilst it is not Yasnaya Polyana, the location epitomises the real rural Russia and the artefacts used add to the period feel. There are some poignant images of the real protagonists dotted around in the credit sequence, and the music is good, too.
This is an enjoyable film. You don’t have to know much about Tolstoy or his work to appreciate the story and the exceptional acting by the very talented cast. Fans of Tolstoy might find some of the over-simplifications of character and story-line irritating.