Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers,
our homes to aliens.
My beloved is mine and I am his; he pastures his flock among the lilies.
Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young stag on the cleft mountains Song of Songs 2:16-17
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.?” Matthew 6:19-21
Few of us who have struggled through Leo Tolstoy’s gigantic War and Peace know much about the au thor, so Michael Hoffman, who wrote as well as directed the script of this film, has rendered us a real service. Based on the events in the last year of the 82 year-old writer’s life, the film brings together two screen greats who give one of last year’s best, but alas, unheralded, portrayal of a couple deeply in love and yet so unmatched in temperament and values that they cannot live together in harmony. Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren are magnificent as the warring couple whose storms of rage at times engulf all about them, time after time threatening to drive them apart. (By the way, I just realized that my use of “unheralded” applies more to the film than to the stars: at least Helen Mirren’s performance has garnered her a “Best Actress” Oscar nomination for 2009, and Christopher Plummer’s for Best Supporting Actor.)
The film is told from the standpoint of the naïve young Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), the new private secretary for the Count, hired by the writer’s chief disciple and agent, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). Because the Countess Sofya loathes him, believing that he is attempting to persuade her husband to leave his land and royalties to “the people” rather than to his family, Chertkov cannot live at the estate. Thus, to keep posted on what is transpiring there, he gives a diary to Valentine, instructing him to write down everything that transpires, especially the names of those who visit the Count. Amusingly, later on, the Countess, seeking to befriend him, also gives the new secretary a diary, asking that he write down everything that transpires when she is not present.
As Valentin arrives at and passes through the Tolstoy estate at Yasnaya Polyana, he stops at the commune that the Count has set up for some of his most devoted followers. Tolstoy is a dedicated pacifist and believer in a semi-anarchist state of society in which there is no private property, and thus a world- wide movement has sprung up around the great writer. As the Countess scornfully yells during one stormy luncheon, his followers regard him as Christ—and she even says that he might harbor the same view of himself. (Fortunately her husband is too honest and humble a man for such a delusion.) At the commune Valentin meets Masha (Kerry Condon), an attractive young woman dressed in a man’s worker clothing performing one of the many chores assigned to commune members regardless of sex—Tolstoy teaches the equality of the sexes as well of the classes and races.
When he meets the great man, Valentin is very impressed by his warmth and humanity—and the young man starts sneezing. (This nervous habit runs throughout the film, providing a source of amusement to us and to his friends.) He marvels that Tolstoy wants to talk about his, Valentin’s, writing, and not his own. Over the next few days the chaste young man becomes aware of the contradictions in the Count’s life—a teacher of celibacy who sired 13 children; a preacher of socialism who owns a large estate; a pacifist but subject to fits of rage; a believer in the blessed state of poverty who possesses great wealth; and an espouser of love who is at constant war with his wife. Caught at times between the two warring parties, Valentin is kept busy at times writing in his two diaries. Along the way he also loses his virginity when the very worldly Masha visits him in his room one night.
Valentin discovers that the love affair between the warring Count and Countess is not only long, but also exceedingly complex. They really do love each other, each confessing at one time or another their deep affection. However Sofya is conservative in her religious and social views, whereas her husband is a radical. And most of all, she is possessed by a mother’s deep devotion to their children, at least one of whom, Sasha (Anne-Marie Duff), lives with and serves them. Sofya is obsessively afraid that her husband will give away the entire family inheritance, leaving her and the children in poverty. Being poor to her is no blessing.
We see the humanity of the Count and Countess when, after one tempestuous outburst that drives them apart, he looks in on her late at night. She invites him for a bout in bed, but he resists. She starts clucking and cackling like a hen, and this connects with “the old rooster” within him—it is obvious this is an old game they have loved playing through the years. Soon, with him atop her, their bedroom sounds like a hen house with their rooster-hen noisemaking.
The film takes its name from the episode in which the Count does leave her after a violent dispute over his will (he actually has met with Chertkov to sign a new one—in the middle of a woods of all places!). Vowing never to see her again, the Count hurriedly leaves with his daughter and Chertkov by coach, and then by train. What follows at the last train station at which the fleeing Count stops is heart-rending and heart-warming. The film begins with a quote from War and Peace: Prince Andrei states, “Everything I know I know only because of love.” That love can be complex and expressed in ways that seem contradictory, this story well demonstrates. The state of mind of the two elderly lovers in the film’s last sequence is well summed up by these words from the opening verses of the 3rd chapter of The Song of Solomon: Upon my bed at night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer.
I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves…’
May contain spoilers.
1. What did you learn about Leo Tolstoy that you did not know before? Were you surprised by the contradictions between his teachings and actual life? How, in a way, was he a prisoner of his wealth? How is this the source of contention between him and Sofya?
2. The Count obviously is impressed by Jesus’ teachings about wealth in Matthew 6, but what about Sofya? What do you think she would say in reply to it? How is the writer apparently but half-converted to it? (Do you think there is a bit of the rich young ruler in him? Or is he being a responsible steward of his wealth, aware that what he decides will impact a lot of lives dependent upon him, and not just members of his family.) At what points in your life does Ch. 6 of the Sermon on the Mount hurt or make you feel uncomfortable? How does it compare with “The American Way of Life” ?
3. How is Valentin often put in the unwelcome position of being in the middle of the two sides striving for Tolstoy’s inheritance? (Notice how often he sneezes!) Are their times when you have been drawn into the middle of a family disagreement?
What role were you able to play—taking sides; helping to clarify or mediate?
4. We can understand Sofya’s concern for herself and her children, but what about Chertkov’s motives? Does he seem altruistic to you, or do you think he might have other motives as he strives for control of Tolstoy’s published works? Does this change as the story unfolds? (He became the preserver and editor of Tolstoy’s works, and was also involved in the correspondence between the Count and Gandhi, described below in Question 7.) Which of the two—Sofya or Chertkov—do you think has the bigger picture of Count Tolstoy and his work?
5. How is Sasha also thrust into the middle of her parents’ warfare? Does she seem to you to be more of a believer in “Tolstoyism” than her mother? How does she show this? How is she torn at the “last station” ? What do you think of her decision?
6. What do you understand to be the meaning of the quote from War and Peace, “Everything I know I know only because of love” ? Or should this be meanings?
7. We see several scenes of Tolstoy writing, some of it correspondence with his many admirers and disciples from around the world. Did you know that one of these, not mentioned in the film, was a young Indian lawyer living in South Africa, Mohandas Gandhi? He was drawn to the writer’s pacifism as espoused in the book The Kingdom of God Is Within You, which he read while in prison. They exchanged letters in 1909 and 1910, Gandhi in his second letter calling himself “a humble follower of yours.” (Those interested in exploring this fascinating connection further might look into two books by Louis Fischer. The shortest is his GANDHI: His Life and Message for the World, pp. 39-40. (New York: Mentor Books, 1954.) In his excellent 550-page biography The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, he devotes a whole chapter (Ch. 13) to their relationship. (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1950.)
8. There is a scene near the beginning of Peter Weir’s film The Year of Living Dangerously in which Tolstoy and his ideas concerning poverty are mentioned. In Jakarta, Indonesia as Billy Kwan, a Eurasian dwarf photographer, and Guy Hamilton, a newly arrived Australian reporter, are walking at night through a market where impoverished venders are hoping to sell their paltry goods, the two men talk of poverty, of Tolstoy, John the Baptist, and of Christ. Check it out—it makes for a great sermon or teaching illustration on the subject of poverty and our various responses to it. (Mel Gibson portrays the journalist and Linda Hunt portrays the photographer, for which she won the Oscar for “Best Actress,” even though Billy Kwan was a man.)
9. Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church. Read the following and discuss why: “The history of the church is the history of cruelty and horror…Every church with its doctrines of redemption and salvation, and above all the Orthodox faith with its idolatry, excludes the doctrine of Christ.” He also wrote that all Christian churches try “to conceal the true meaning of the doctrine of Christ.” (p. 96 of Fischer’s Life of M.G.) What about your church? How much of the Sermon on the Mount, which for Tolstoy with his doctrine of “passive resistance” was central to “the doctrine of Christ,” is “concealed” or perhaps a better word, “neglected,” by your church? Or maybe explained away as being “idealistic” rather than “realistic.” 10. How can writers such as Tolstoy influence us to become more involved in issues of poverty and war and peace? What are you and your church doing on behalf of such causes? Where in your community do you find the peacemakers?