Sunday, January 29, 2012

Rosamund Bartlett's "Tolstoy: A Russian Life"

Rosamund Bartlett's books include Wagner and Russia and the acclaimed Chekhov: Scenes from a Life. An authority on Russian cultural history, she has also achieved renown as a translator of Chekhov.

Here she shares some suggestions for casting the leads in an adaptation of her latest book, Tolstoy: A Russian Life:
The image of Tolstoy as an old sage is now deeply ingrained thanks to The Last Station. Christopher Plummer did a marvellous job, even if his character lacked Tolstoy’s gravitas. If they ever made my biography into a film, I'd like to concentrate on Tolstoy’s earlier years, when he was a reckless young man of extraordinary physical and intellectual prowess who caroused with the gypsies, bedded peasant girls, fought bears single-handed, served with honour in the Crimean War and gambled to excess while at the same time developing superlative literary gifts and the stamina to write War and Peace. Tolstoy was not a refined aesthete, but gruff and down to earth despite his aristocratic pedigree. He was an eccentric - a man who always went against the grain and against his class by siding with the beleagured peasants.

He abhorred convention and the hypocrisy of the society world he belonged to by birth, and he loved the natural world of rural Russia which was his home for the best part of his life. I think Russell Crowe would probably fit the bill best. As an actor who has both Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind to his credit, he could bring out Tolstoy’s enormous vitality, zest for life and imposing physical strength as well as his prodigious intellectual powers and exasperating obstinacy. Russell Crowe could also draw effectively on the refreshing lack of pretension that is associated with his native Australia which would suit a portrayal of Tolstoy.

Identifying the right actress to play Tolstoy’s wife Sonya is more difficult. Sonya was half Tolstoy’s age, and bore her husband thirteen children during their long and tempestuous marriage. Kate Winslet might make a good stab at it. Sonya was very winsome as a young girl; she was artless, quite conventional and extremely impressionable. But she was also smart, passionate and ambitious, and clearly revelled in being the wife of a famous writer, not to mention becoming Countess Tolstoy upon her marriage. Sonya was long-suffering, as she had to put up with her husband’s at times violent mood swings, and cater to his every whim. Tolstoy was no feminist, and brooked no opposition when Sonya tired of endlessly being pregnant, refusing to contemplate any kind of contraception, and ignoring the fact that his wife on several occasions became gravely ill following childbirth. Sonya was a dutiful wife and a proud mother, but she became increasingly skilled at sticking up for herself, and refused to be cowed. As Tolstoy’s amanuensis, she contributed very significantly to his productivity as a writer, and in later years was finally able to develop her own creative gifts as a photographer and painter. Kate Winslet would bring her own natural intelligence to the role, as well as a great strength of character and emotional sensitivity. Sonya was famously humourless, and as stubborn as her husband, so that side of her personality might be more of a challenge, but Winslet has a good track record playing headstrong women who stand up for themselves.

Another actress who comes to mind is Emily Watson, whom I would want to cast as Sonya’s more frivolous and exuberant younger sister Tanya. It was Tanya’s joie-de-vivre which partly inspired Tolstoy’s immortal creation of Natasha in War and Peace, and I am thinking of Emily Watson’s inspired performances in Breaking the Waves and later in Hilary and Jackie, in which she played the role of the cellist Jacqueline du Pre.
Visit Rosamund Bartlett's website and learn more about Tolstoy: A Russian Life.

Writers Read: Rosamund Bartlett.

--Marshal Zeringue