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Like Reading People Magazine Instead of War and Peace
Silly, shallow, sleepy and slow, this sumptuous costume drama about the aging Leo Tolstoy and his long-suffering wife Sophy fails to do several things well.
It fails to give you any insight into why Tolstoy was one of the greatest writers who ever lived. Or why he wanted to give all his money to the poor. Or why he was so desperate to renounce sex. Or how any of this connected to what was actually happening in Russia at the time.
The movie spends hours and hours tittering and giggling over Tolstoy's earthy appetites -- as though it's so extraordinary that older people still enjoy having sex. But we don't get even five minutes of time with the people Tolstoy wants to help -- the Russian peasants. If we can't see them suffering, then Tolstoy's ideas just seem like charming whimsicality. Which is just what this movie wants -- to keep things shallow, so we can celebrate the joys of casual sex (and the gossip and glamor surrounding celebrity couples) and not get all hung up on heavy things like poverty, justice, and human suffering.
One moment sums up the whole problem. Early in the movie, Tolstoy and his wife actually have a rather interesting conversation about the people. Tolstoy says that if they give all their wealth to the peasants the peasants will embrace them as family and they'll all live peacefully in a world without hunger or injustice. Countess Sophy replies tartly that if the peasants ever got their hands on that much money they'd just spend it on whores and drink.
Neither of them brings up a third possibility -- that the peasants HATE them and do not WANT to live in brotherhood. The truth the movie ignores is that sooner or later the peasants will make the beautiful people pay for three hundred years of stealing their food, women, and land. The laziness, corruption, greed, and callousness of the Russian aristocracy -- which the real Count Leo Tolstoy knew only too well -- is entirely absent from this film.
As a result, we entirely miss the real tragedy of a flawed but courageous nobleman trying (too late) to make amends. Instead we get melodrama, sentimentality, and a lot of schoolgirl giggling about sex.
It's like reading PEOPLE magazine instead of War and Peace.
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