Oh the potential! Tolstoy! Helen Mirren! James McAvoy! Christopher (Canadian) Plummer! But alas, does it drag. There was a slow boat to China, but at least then you ended up in the Orient. This long ride takes you to a much less intriguing place.
On any journey it’s the unexpected stops which often create the best memories. Unfortunately here, the stops are rather obviously mapped. Tolstoy, in his twilight years, is being pulled between his political movement and his love for his wife. Valentin Bulgakov (McAvoy) is sent to be his secretary and, shockingly, finds himself in a similar position. Despite this rather obvious plot there are interesting notes on the nature of narrative and recording a story. Bulgakov is asked by opposing Tolstoy teams (wife vs. leader of his political movement) to keep a diary and record everything as he sees it, and report back to each of them. A nod to narrative complexity usually would get me to the station on time and ready to go, but here we are left wanting more.
Bulgakov’s constant writing throughout the scenes triggers a reminder of the active documentation that the camera is rolling. As does the sound of scratching of pens on paper scrambling to record the Countess’s (Mirren) public breakdown. Not so subtly, the cameras stationed outside of the Tolstoy estate, at his deathbed and at his funeral do the same. But what this suggests remains vague, like a student stretching only to have their extended arm mistaken for a gesture of intent. The pens of the press are constantly rebuked in the film, by both Team Countess and the Tolstoyans. Yet, the press also posses cameras, which are turned upon the Tolstoy family as well. Rather than explore the meaning of these modes of recording, Bulgakov pen is collapsed into Hoffman’s camera and both are positioned as omnipotent. And that’s when the train left the station for me.