This film chronicles the sad and strange last years of Leo Tolstoy. Living on his country estate, Tolstoy becomes obsessed with the idea that his work belonged to the “people”, and he arranged to leave the copyrights to the state. He was aided and abetted in this endeavor by his adoring followers, the Tolstoyans, who of course see a lucrative future for themselves managing the revenue of said copyrights. Tolstoy’s wife, not unreasonably, sees the copyrights as financial support for herself and her children once the great man is gone Ferocious marital rows ensue (as usual, some of the most bizarre incidents are the best documented) and Leo eventually flees into the night. Things do not go well.
The story is interesting, and Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren are about as great as you’d expect them to be as the Tolstoys. Paul Giamatti as the sinister Tolstoyan is entertaingly smarmy, and James McAvoy as Tolstoy’s private secretary is not too annoying. But it’s hard not to see the whole movie through the prism of the Russian Revolution. Given the date (1910) we know, as the participants could not, that the whole issue of the copyright was soon to become moot. When Leo says that, in 50 years, aristocrats won’t be sitting around in country estates being waited on by peasants, he’s right, but not in the way he thinks. And that sad historical perspective makes the movie somewhat less satisfying than it might otherwise have been.