Dave's Rating:

3.5

Helen Mirren is the boss of you.

Who's In It: Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Christopher Plummer, Paul Giamatti, Anne-Marie Duff, Kerry Condon

The Basics: All war and no peace as Leo Tolstoy (Plummer) enters the last stage of his life caught in the middle of a screaming match between his cult of followers--the Tolstoyans--who subscribe to the novelist's radical Christian anarchist beliefs, and his own wife (Mirren) who loves her husband but refuses to see the Tolstoyans' anti-private property stance (they want the ailing writer to sign away his copyright money) get in the way of her living the life of a Countess.

What's The Deal: As fake history lessons about authors of Great Books go (the facts are in line, the rest is fictiony, and you don't have to have read Anna Karenina either) this one features what I'm going to assume is a lot more arched-eyebrow action, hanky-panky and sarcastic line delivery than what transpired between the real-life players. And just as you're settled into thinking it's going to be college-lit-class comedic throughout, the game changes and everybody puts on their serious faces for the final act. And it's the only place the movie could have gone anyway; you don't want to watch anyone turn the death of Tolstoy--lying in bed calling his estranged wife's name--into an SNL sketch.

Weakest Link: The character with whom the audience is most meant to identify is James McAvoy's wide-eyed acolyte, a literary groupie turned flunkie with a soft spine who's also the least interesting person in the film. James McAvoy isn't the problem, though. The script gives him nothing to do but shine his wet eyes at the camera and fail to swing his ax. (Yes, it happens in front of the woman he loves. Yes, it's meant to be about something else.) So, just like in Me and Orson Welles, fascinating people are milling all around but the movie focuses on the kid's need to "come of age" instead.

The Movie I Wish I'd Seen: The one where the whole film is about power-hungry Tolstoyan Paul Giamatti duking it out nonstop with Countess Helen Mirren. When those two are on screen snarling at each other everything else stops and you feel like you're watching Godzilla beat down The Smog Monster. (Him: "If I had a wife like you I'd have blown my brains out... or gone to AMERICA!" Her: "You fat little catamite!") You're rooting for Mirren, of course. When The Road becomes real life, you have a feeling she's going to survive and elect herself President of deciding who lives and who dies.

For Fans Of: Allegories of fundamentalism (and the recognition that there was a time when hardcore Christians were allowed to be anarchists and pacifists); early 20th century period details, mustache-twirling, fainting spells, the Elvis-like shooting of guns at inanimate objects.

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