'Last Station' is a smart, gripping tale of Tolstoy's final years
The great thing about The Last Station is that it doesn't take sides. This lightly fictionalized story of Leo Tolstoy in his twilight years, beset by public and domestic discord, is rife with polarizing issues: poverty vs. wealth, communal life vs. privilege, religious doctrine vs. personal freedom, male vs. female. But as characters are revealed and their relationships entwine, filmmaker Michael Hoffman refuses to condemn anyone or tell the audience what to think. Instead, his smart, gripping film provides a sprawling and juicy canvas of life in all its messy contradictions.
Hoffman adapted the film from the novel by Jay Parini, which was inspired by private diaries kept by several witnesses in Tolstoy's household during his later years. In Hoffman's film, this busy narrative is pared down to single viewpoint from which the rest of the story unspools, that of Valentin Bulgakov (solid, earnest James McAvoy), an innocent, awestruck young writer hired on as Tolstoy's new personal secretary.
In 1910, 80-year-old Count Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer, in fine form) is the most famous and beloved man in Russia. The author of "War And Peace" and "Anna Karenina," he has also inspired what's called the Tolstoyan Movement, based on the principles he champions in his non-fiction: passive resistance, purity, communal living, giving up material things, and putting an end to private property. Many of his adherents believe Tolstoy is a saint; Valentin arrives eager to "perfect my soul" in his company.
But Tolstoy's heartfelt principles put him in conflict with himself. He may rhapsodize over the virtues of poverty, and dress in simple peasant clothing, yet he lives as a nobleman on a private estate, with armies of servants seeing to his needs. And nowhere is this conflict in his life more apparent than in the person of the Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren), his wife of 48 years. Reviled as difficult and manipulative by all in the Tolstoyan inner circle—including her dour daughter, Sasha (Anne-Marie Duff), eager to be the keeper of her father's spiritual flame—Sofya is the spark that makes the story sizzle.
Sofya fears that her husband will sign away the copyright to his lucrative novels, as advocated by the pompous and conniving Tolstoyan leader Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), which she considers the birthright of their children. But her motives are neither greedy nor selfish. As the only one who knows the real Leo, and loved him longer than anyone, she's refreshingly caustic about his premature sainthood. "They all think he's Christ," she marvels, in exasperation. "He thinks he's Christ!" She tells the virginal Valentin, "When he was your age, he was whoring in the caucases!"
The accepted wisdom is that Sofya is a soulless termagant who gives her husband no peace. Leo almost accepts it himself, except for those few, key scenes where they laugh and joke privately together, with an affectionate camaraderie that none of his latter-day disciples could possibly understand. Sofya wages a daily campaign to get Leo to see in her the girl he married, his long-time life partner, still stubbornly there beneath all the calumnies her enemies heap upon her. Just as she knows and loves the flesh-and-blood man he is, not the elderly "saint" his followers idolize.
Mirren is marvelous in every scene, conveying Sofya's spirit and complexity, as she battles the forces determined to lure Leo away from her. When Sofya recalls how Leo used to show her every new page he'd written for her advice, we feel how much it hurts her now to be so excluded. Hoffman also suggests the humbuggery within the Tolstoyan commune in Valentin's love affair with Masha (Kerry Condon), a sassy proto-feminist who comes to their utopia looking for freedom, but finds only rules and control. Yet Tolstoy's followers are never less than sincere; even the heartless Chertkov believes he's acting for the good of the Russian people.
As opulent and densely populated as a Russian novel, the movie is full of lovely scenes, Like the first time starstruck Valentin enters the Temple of Wonder—Tolstoy's study, strewn with manuscript pages. And the intensity of the battle for Leo's soul never flags, right up to the film's final galloping moments.
THE LAST STATION ★★★1/2 (out of four) Watch movie trailer >>>
With Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, Paul Giamatti, and James McAvoy. Written and directed by Michael Hoffman. From the novel by Jay Parini. A Sony Classics release. Rated R. 112 minutes.
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