The Last Station opens Friday in select theaters
Writers' ideas are better suited for books than for movies. This was my conclusion after seeing The Last Station, Michael Hoffman's smart, well-acted, heavily researched tale of the last days of Leo Tolstoy.
Tolstoy, of course, is the epitome of the Great Novelist, and his masterpiece, War and Peace, is the book that some have read and many more of us aspire to someday read. Still, watching this film—like watching Shakespeare in Love or Young Mr. Lincoln or The Motorcycle Diaries—is essentially an act of genuflecting before the greatness of the subject before settling into a story that emphasizes the ordinary foibles of these great people, while eliding the complexities and contradictions of their work.
This is not to say that The Last Station doesn't get into Tolstoy's ideology and less attractive character traits—it does—just that his ideas are ultimately downplayed in favor of a more universal, digestible historical period piece. Still, we do learn a bit about Tolstoy's radical asceticism—vegetarianism, celibacy, agrarian communal living—and his espousal of a kind of Christian anarchism that would influence Gandhi and other 20th-century notables.
The Last Station is a meaty movie for a top-notch cast. Christopher Plummer plays the great man as a rasping but burdened old goat, while the finely aging Helen Mirren is glamorous as Sofya, his wife of 48 years, who served as her husband's secretary, copying out the 560,000 words in War and Peace a half-dozen times. She also bore him 13 children.
This film, adapted from a novel by Jay Parini, is set on Tolstoy's rural estate in 1909 or so, when Sofya is alarmed when she learns of her husband's plans to give away his money and copyrights as an act of charity for the Russian people. According to The Last Station, however, the prime beneficiary of this bequest would seem to be a character called Vladimir Chertkov, a close friend of Tolstoy and the leader of a religious movement inspired by Tolstoy's thought. It's not clear that this movie needs a villain, but Chertkov is the villain nonetheless; we know this because he's given a broad, unsympathetic performance by Paul Giamatti, that specialist in angry, ineffectual characters.
We meet Chertkov at the beginning of the film as he sends a young writer and Tolstoy acolyte named Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) to Tolstoy's estate to help make sure that the old writer does indeed carry out his intention to give his wealth away. Bulgakov is a naïf, and the ever-reliable McAvoy (Atonement) nails his early scenes: his terrified first meeting with Tolstoy and his terrified first meetings with Masha (Kerry Condon, very fine), a free-spirited, sexually liberated woman who works on a nearby communal farm run by Chertkov's Tolstoyan group. The scenes on this farm, which resembles a kibbutz and would also inspire the ashrams that Gandhi founded in South Africa, seem lightly reminiscent of modern organic farming culture—we see adherents practicing tai chi in the mornings, and they're so sensitive to animal welfare that they resist swatting the hateful mosquitoes that plague people in those latitudes in the summer. (The mosquitoes mostly survive, but celibacy is a casualty as Bulgakov and Masha flirt while chopping wood.)
The film settles into a nice Chekhovian groove as Bulgakov explores a relationship with Masha while observing the ups and downs of Leo and Sofya's marriage. Also in the household are a Tolstoy daughter, Sasha (Anne-Marie Duff), and a sycophant or two; amusingly, there's also a retinue of paparazzi who seem to have permanent residence in front of the estate, recording (with movie cameras) the comings and goings of the great man and his family.
There are movies in which you want to see great actors devour the scenery, and Plummer and Mirren oblige (both received Oscar nominations). Buried under a long white beard, Plummer seems utterly unfazed by the challenge of playing a legend. The notoriously libertine actor is particularly charming during scenes with McAvoy, in which he reflects on his randy youth, and he also conveys a more subtle awareness that after his impending death, the world may have trouble living up to his extraordinary prescriptions for revolutionary utopianism. For her part, Mirren makes us chuckle and nod as she delivers her character's most reactionary opinions, and proceeds to seduce us with the tenacity of her Sofya, a heroine worthy of Greek drama: alternately seductive, vindictive, self-pitying and histrionic. It's a terrific show all around.
The end of Tolstoy's life was shockingly melodramatic as he fled his estate, Lear-like, and hopped on board a midnight train going anywhere. The film's title refers to the setting of his death, a train station in the remote countryside—a fitting demise, perhaps, for the author of Anna Karenina. Still, the ending doesn't feel as desolate as it should—perhaps because the film reaches for a sentimental, reassuring uplift in which Sofya's love for her husband trumps her con political opinions—and his unflagging radicalism. In short, the audience is asked to side with either Giamatti or Mirren, which is hardly a fair fight. Still, this enjoyable film succeeds in interesting us in pursuing further the work of Tolstoy—his fiction, his ideas about anarchism (Christian and otherwise) and his scandalous A Confession. Perhaps we'll even read War and Peace this summer.