Santa Cruz Good Times

Monday
May 04th
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

 

Mountain Mystic

When Cora Evans died in Boulder Creek in 1957, her thousands of pages of religious writings hadn’t yet been published. More than a half a century later, Evans’ fiery visions and spiritual devotion have inspired a crusade within Catholicism to make her the Santa Cruz Mountains’ first saint

 

Wesak (Water) Taurus Solar Festival, Buddha Blesses the Earth

A most important celebration occurs Sunday, May 3—the Wesak Taurus Buddha Solar Festival/full moon. At the moment of the full moon the Buddha’s presence enters the Earth plane for eight minutes. He brings the Will-to-Good from the Father, which, when reaching humanity becomes goodwill (Mother Principle). Held yearly in a valley hidden deep within the Himalayas, the Wesak festival is prepared for for months in advance (beginning at Winter Solstice). On festival day, amidst pilgrims, disciples and Holy Ones gathered in the valley, the Buddha is invoked through movement, symbols and mantrams. At the moment of the full moon, hearing the words, “We are ready, Buddha, come,” the Lord of Illumination (brother of the Christ) appears in the clouds above the altar to emanate forth the will and purpose of God to earth. The blessing of the father is then held in safekeeping for distribution at the June full moon Goodwill Festival. The day of Wesak (May 3, 8:42 p.m. West Coast) all disciples (east and west) place crystal vessels filled with pure water outside (in gardens, on rooftops, porches and steps) under the heavens. As the Buddha blesses the world, all waters, including waters within our bodies, are blessed. The Buddha is accompanied by the Forces of Enlightenment to illuminate humanity’s minds. Humanity then begins to express new constructive, productive and beneficial ways of the Art of Livingness. Wesak covers five days—two days (before) of dedicated preparation, the actual festival “Day of Safeguarding,” and two days (after) distributing goodwill (the NGWS to humanity). Join us in the Valley by reciting the Great Invocation, mantra of direction for humanity.

 

The New Tech Nexus

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

 

Film, Times & Events: Week of May 1

Santa Cruz area movie theaters >
Sign up for Good Times weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, events

RSS Feed Burner

 Subscribe in a reader

Latest Comments

 

Hole in the Wall

Popular Aptos spot opens for dinner

 

How do you connect with the natural world?

My connection to the natural world is through my art. I totally feel it there very physically in nature and even right here on the street. Jonathan Rosen, Felton, Pastor

 

Hess Collection Winery

My friend Emma from London came to visit for a few days in early March, so I took her wine tasting in the Santa Cruz Mountains—a rare treat for her, as there aren’t too many vineyards in the middle of London. Her visit reminded me how fortunate we are to live in this paradise of ultra-fresh produce, with grapes growing in wild profusion.

 

Springtime Walkabout

May Day Flower Festival, free tours of the UCSC Farm, and a nondairy chocolate indulgence