Both films illuminate the lives of Charles Darwin and Leo Tolstoy, in part through their occasionally embattled marriages. This isn't necessarily revisionism, but rather a choice made in light of history — in USA Today, Maria Puente writes,
"Descendants often know the full story. In [great-great-grandson Randal] Keynes' family, Emma Darwin was considered as special as her husband. When Hoffman showed his film to Tolstoy descendants, they told him the depiction of Sofya closely resembled how the family views her. "She wasn't just some crazy, outrageous woman torturing the genius."
And then there is this fantastic anecdote, recounted recently by the Telegraph:
In 1838, when Charles Darwin was trying to decide whether to propose to his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, he wrote Marry and Don't Marry at the top of two columns and listed the advantages and disadvantages. After weighing "chit-chat" against loss of freedom he chose marriage and, near the end of his life, concluded: "I marvel at my good fortune."
There are a lot of reasons, narratively speaking, why it makes sense for a film to tell the story of a great man — or an idea — through his enduring relationships. For one thing, the sheer weight of their place in history can make it hard to tell a compelling story about them. As Christopher Plummer, who plays Tolstoy in The Last Station, told The New York Times in November, "The hardest thing is to play a genius, and even harder is to write a genius: you just say he's a genius, and good luck."
Seeing the "genius" through the eyes of the people who knew him intimately means showing both the ordinary and extraordinary. Take Bright Star, which, although Puente doesn't mention it, is another example of a sort of lateral storytelling that sheds light on the greatness of a historical figure by including the support — and subjectivity — of a woman in his life, lived through daily life. (In fact, Abbie Cornish's character, Fanny Brawne, is a richer character than John Keats himself). Among the most revealing scenes in HBO's John Adams's were the ones with Laura Linney, who played Abigail Adams, his gently challenging intellectual partner.
When well-written and interested in something other than stock characters, these films provide interesting roles in ambitious historical drama for talented actresses like Helen Mirren, Jennifer Connelly, Laura Linney, and Abbie Cornish. True, even when given plenty of screentime, they are essentially plus-ones, there by merit of their relationship to a man. (The USA Today article gamely includes Prince Albert in The Young Victoria, but this is fairly anomalous). But as long as these aren't the only contemporary film roles available to women, there is something to be said about remembering, and bringing to life the real-life, mostly invisible women who lived in times of far fewer choices. As Helen Mirren said of her character, Sofya Tolstoy, "Her emotion and her love for him, that was her only power base."
It reminded me, of course, of Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own:
It would be ambitious beyond my daring, I thought, looking about the shelves for books that were not there, to suggest to the students of those famous colleges that they should re-write history, though I own that it often seems a little queer as it is, unreal, lop-sided; but why should they not add a supplement to history? Calling it, of course, by some inconspicuous name so that women might figure there without impropriety?
Woolf famously suggested Shakespeare's sister as a counterfactual of what a woman might have achieved, but didn't, in near-impossible times. If done right, Shakespeare's wife isn't a bad approach, either.
Behind Every Great Man, There's A Great Woman's Story [USA Today]
Related: The House of Tolstoy, in His Winter [NYT]
Couples: the Truth By Kate Figes: Review [Telegraph]