Helen Mirren is a lusty, roaring wonder playing, of all things, the long-suffering wife of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer in peak form). Countess Sofya, married to the old man for 48 years and the mother of his 13 children, is beside herself over her husband’s decision – in the last year of his life – to will the rights to his great literary works not to her but to, of all things, the Russian people.
Sofya faints dead away at the sight of Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti channeling Uriah Heep), who manages the utopian movement that Tolstoy founded. She spits contempt at Chertkov, calling him her husband’s “boyfriend,” and rages at the very sight of him.
Mirren has worn the crowns of Elizabeth I and II onscreen, but she’s never played a drama queen like Sofya. To watch her threaten, cajole and seduce her husband is a treat Oscar voters cannot ignore. The incomparable Mirren is simply astounding. And Plummer, red-faced with embarrassment at his own desire for his wife after all these years, is her match. The sight of these two acting giants going at each other should come under the heading of pure, rowdy pleasure.
The film itself, energetically directed and written by Michael Hoffman, can’t always rise to the level of its two dynamo stars, though James McAvoy gets in some tasty licks as Valentin Bulgakov, Tolstoy’s worshipful secretary. By the end, when the estranged Tolstoys say their final goodbyes at a train station, you’ll be too much in thrall to care.