This biopic of Tolstoy opens by quoting the writer: “All, everything I understand, I understand because I love.” This is presumably the sentiment the filmmakers were trying to convey, though it really only comes through once the film decides to trade in pointless slapstick comedy for palpably emotional drama—meaning there’s an uneasy mix of both for at least the film’s first 45 minutes.
Writer-director Michael Hoffman, probably best-known for the 1996 George Clooney rom-com One Fine Day, based the film on a fictionalised account of the author’s turbulent final years—an historical novel of the same name written in 1990 by the American academic Jay Parini.
In the twilight of his life, the Russian writer—here played wonderfully by Christopher Plummer—is writing into his will a stipulation that all his work be put in the public domain, for the benefit of future generations and as a symbol of the pacifist, anti-materialist movement named for him. Tolstoy’s wife (Helen Mirren) believes she has the right to take control of Tolstoy’s papers and writings once he dies, not least for the sustained income they will provide.
An acolyte of Tolstoy’s, played by Paul Giamatti, enlists the help of an eager young man (James McAvoy) and installs him as Tolstoy’s personal secretary to ensure that Tolstoy’s wife’s plans to alter his will do not come to fruition.
Splitting his time between Tolstoy’s mansion at Yasnaya Polyana, and his countryside estate—where the writer’s followers, so-called “Tolstoians,” live in a commune-like arrangement—the young man, around whom the film orbits, finds love for the first time in a relationship which is intended to be the counterpoint to that of the leading couple’s—a love that, although frequently fraught with disagreement, has endured for decades. This relationship, however, serves only to detract from what should be the film’s focus, and the performance that is arguably far more worthy of the spotlight.
The title derives from the place where the film concludes: the end-of-the-line outpost at Astapovo where the writer died at the age of 82 after attempting to abandon his family and worldly possessions for an austere lifestyle. The film’s cinematography, by Sebastian Edschmid, is to be applauded, and some of the acting is stellar: Mirren and Plummer were deservedly nominated for Oscars for their performances, in which a brief glimmer of the same kind of chemistry shared by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? can almost be seen.
On the flipside, the script is too glossy and light-hearted over all, and many parts were mis-cast, chief among them McAvoy, whose Scots accent shines through just a little too often for comfort—or for the suspension of disbelief. Given that the book it’s based on is a largely fictitious reimagining of events cobbled together from diaries and blended with historical analysis and commentary from its author, the film’s historical inaccuracies—and perhaps also the fact that none of the principal actors is Russian—can be forgiven.
However, the film’s confused mix of overt melodrama—including a tedious, manipulative piano cue on the score (by Sergey Yevtushenko, who composed the music for Russian Ark) that is relied on with laughable frequency—and, in its first third at least, out-of-place farce, makes for a befuddled, uneven picture.