Rating: 4/5
Verdict: Extravagant melodrama with brilliant performances

Almost ostentatiously brilliant, this adaptation of Jay Parini's 1990 novel about the last year in the life of the great Russian novelist Count Leo Tolstoy is like a night at the theatre in London or New York: much of its pleasure resides in watching two fine actors at the top of their game and it's so giddy that we just can't wait to applaud.

That assessment is not meant to be entirely complimentary since there's something a bit self-consciously theatrical about the whole project, but for regular devotees of the high-toned, old-school Sunday night dramas on the telly, it delivers in spades.

Parini reportedly worked from contemporary archives, including the Tolstoys' own letters, to create the raw material for director Michael Hoffman's screenplay. This is set in 1910, mostly on the writer's country estate (the locations are all in Germany).

Here Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) and his wife, the Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren) should be enjoying the autumn of their lives in the Russian summer. But trouble looms when the Tolstoyans, an austere Christian fundamentalist group whose guiding principles include vegetarianism, celibacy and pacifism, take up residence.

The group, formed by the reptilian Chertkov (Paul Giamatti's moustache-twirling eminence grise is so vaudevillian you practically feel like hissing), is inspired by the ideas of the Count himself, who regards wealth as corrupt and has signed a new will which bequeaths his estate, including his works, to the Russian people.

Sofya, who had married him when she was 18 and he 32, borne him 13 children and copied out War and Peace six times by hand, takes understandable exception to the dispossession of her kids. Despite Chertkov's disapproval of her "dogged attachment to private property", she puts up a hell of a fight and even without knowing the facts, which are prefigured in the title, we can tell it's going to end badly.

Into the mix Hoffman, who both wrote and directed, throws an interesting supporting ensemble: James McAvoy as an priggish Tolstoyan hired as the great man's secretary and Kerry Condon as a lustrous acolyte who tests his dedication to celibacy.

It adds up to a tasty, high-class soap opera - an extravagant melodrama bordering on farce, full of great lines (Mirren: "No wonder I feel lonely; I'm surrounded by morons"; Plummer: "I've never stopped loving you, but God knows you don't make it easy") and nice historical touches such as the reminder that there were paparazzi scribblers before there were cameras.

Cast: Christopher Plummer, James McAvoy, Helen Mirren, Paul Giamatti, Anne Marie-Duff, Kerry Condon
Director: Michael Hoffman
Running time: 112 mins
Rating: M (contains sex scenes)