Based on the true story of famous Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s last year of life, 1910. This is a “love/hate story” about the traumatic relationship that Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) had with his wife of 48 years, the Countess Sofya, played by Helen Mirren. It’s told through the eyes of a young neophyte Tolstoyan, Valentin, who is hired to be a secretary to Leo. It is a clash of worldviews as Leo seeks to rid himself of private property and deed all the rights of his writing to the public domain, while his wife pleads for him to not do so in order to take care of his family. They are madly in love with each other, yet also hatefully at odds with each other’s politics. And this results in a passionate recklessness of extremes in their reactions to one another.
There is a Tolstoyan commune of people seeking to live without property and in moral purity, something not easily accomplished as Valentin immediately falls for Sasha, a girl who defies the rules and they begin a torrid sex affair. The irony of Tolstoy’s position is brought out as we see his followers refer to him as a kind of Jesus Christ, and yet deviously plot to have him sign away his works to the public domain, “for the people.” Sofya is outwardly portrayed as a desperate clutching paranoid gold digger worried about a conspiracy to manipulate Leo into changing his will, yet she is also displayed as not only being right about the conspiracy, but the only one who has been loyal to Tolstoy, to his happiness, the only one honest about his humanity and faults, and the only one who passionately loves him.
It’s as if this film is showing the clash between socialism and capitalism, a reflection of the current political debates we find ourselves in.
The young secretary enters the commune with pure ideology, which draws the cynical Sasha, but he also comes to see both sides of Leo and Sofya and ends up painfully unwilling to trash Sofya as all the other conspirators do because he sees her depth of true love for Leo. It’s as if the movie is showing us that ideology like socialism, which negates private property and prioritizes the public over the private, ends up destroying the passion and life of individuals in the name of “the cause” while the apparent selfishness of free market capitalism with its priority of private property ends up creating the freedom out of which true love and human individuality is bred. Sofya is not without her selfish and histrionic faults and Leo is not without virtue for his ideals, which is what makes this story an honest portrayal instead of propaganda.
As the conspirators draw Leo away to hiding, in order to let him write his great work which Sofya seems to be impeding, Leo is nevertheless depicted as needing her for his very breath in order to live. It is their passionate love that draws them unstoppably together, but it is their philosophies that draw them apart. As stated in the film, “To love and be loved is the only reality,” and “love is what it is all about.” Leo tells his secretary that the one thing that all religions have in common is love, that it is “love that binds all mankind together.” And in this story, it is love of individuals that transcends ideology of the community.
Evidently, Tolstoy had rejected the Russian Orthodox church (another reflection of socialism is the negation of religion) and his followers are so concerned that Sofya will visit him and bring about a death bed conversion back to the church, that they seek unsuccessfully to keep her from him as he dies. As Leo’s ideologue friend Vladimir tells the naïve secretary, “A deathbed conversion will destroy everything. A simple noble death is what we want.” In other words, the truth and the individual must be sacrificed to the movement or the ideology. At this ending, just before Sofya is brought in by the now more realist Valentin, she tells Vladimir “You want to create an image of YOU, not HIM.” And so it seems this story shows that those who seek to build movements and ideologies over the individual and love will end up manipulating the individual and controlling others.