Santa Cruz Good Times

Thursday
Dec 18th
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Twilight of the God

film_last_station1'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 film_last_stationthe 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.

 

Comments (0)Add Comment

Write comment
smaller | bigger

busy
 

Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share

 

Is This a Dream?

A beginner’s guide to understanding and exploring the uncanny world of lucid dreams

 

Giving and Giving, Then Giving Some More

2014 is almost over. Wednesday, Dec. 17, the Jewish Festival of Light, Hanukkah, begins. We are in our last week of Sag and last two weeks of December. Sunday, Dec. 21 is winter Solstice, as the sun enters Capricorn (3:30 p.m. for the west coast). Soon after, the Capricorn new moon occurs (5:36 p.m. for the west coast)—the last new moon of 2014. Sunday morning Uranus in Aries (revolution, revelation) is stationary direct (retro since July 22). Uranus/Aries create things new and needed to anchor the new culture and civilization (Aquarius). We will see revolutionary change in 2015. Capricorn new moon, building-the-personality seed thought, is, “Let ambition rule and let the door to initiation and freedom stand wide (open).” Capricorn is a gate—where matter returns to spirit. But the gate is unseen until the Ajna Center (third eye), Diamond Light of Direction, opens. Winter solstice is the longest day of darkness of the year. The sun’s rays resting at the Tropic of Capricorn (southern hemisphere) symbolize the Christ (soul’s) light piercing the heart of the Earth, remaining there for three days, till Holy Night (midnight Thursday morning). Then the sun’s light begins to rise. It is the birth of the new light (holy child) for the world. A deep calm and stillness pervades the world.The entire planet is revivified, re-spiritualized. All hearts beating reflect this Light. And so throughout the Earth there’s a radiant “impress” (impressions, pictures) given to humanity of the World Mother and her Child. The star Sirius (love/direction) and the constellation Virgo the mother shines above. For gift giving, give to those in need. Give and give and then give some more. This creates the new template of giving and sharing for the new world.

 

The New Tech Nexus

Community leaders in science and technology unite to form web-based networking program

 

Stocking Stuffers

The men behind the women of the Kinsey Sicks Dragapella Beautyshop Quartet explain their own special brand of ‘dragtivism,’ and their holiday show at the Rio
Sign up for Good Times weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, events

RSS Feed Burner

 Subscribe in a reader

Latest Comments

 

Tramonti Pizza

Why there’s no such thing as too much Italian food in Seabright

 

Guitar or surfboard?

Guitar. The closest thing I ever came to surfing was sliding down a rock hill. Charlie Tweddle, Santa Cruz, Hats and Music

 

Fortino Winery’s Intriguing Charbono

At the opening celebration of the new Santa Clara Wine Trail in August, one of the wineries we visited was Fortino. This is where I first tasted their intriguing estate-grown Charbono—a varietal that is one of the rarest in California, with only 80 acres grown statewide.

 

Beyond the Jar

How Tabitha Stroup has built her rapidly expanding jam empire