The Last Station
Dir. Michael Hoffman
Given literary biopics’ pompous tradition and the weight of Tolstoy’s legacy, it may come as a surprise that The Last Station is digestible in any fashion. Yet The Last Station is actually pleasurable. Rather than following the straightforward path of most biopics, it chooses to look at two romantic relationships that took place the final year of the author’s life: Tolstoy’s (Christopher Plummer) with his wife, Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren), and the forbidden relationship between Tolstoy’s young secretary Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) and fellow Tolstoyan Masha (Kerry Condon). The catch is that celibacy is part of the mantra practiced at the Tolstoyan camp Telyatinki, where both Valentin and Masha live. Through these conflicts, the film is able to transcend a straight biography of the author and instead focus on the disconnect Tolstoy found between his own life and the ideals he championed.
It seems fitting that in a film chronicling his final year, Tolstoy takes a back seat–much in the same way the writer, as a person, ultimately took a back seat to his reputation and the desires of those around him in his last days. The filmic Tolstoy is subsumed by his roaring wife, who damns his newfound idealism; the furtive Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), leader of the author’s worshipers; and the hopelessly romantic and endlessly gullible Valentin. Chertkov seeks to have Tolstoy’s work and fortune willed to the Russian people, pitting him against Sofya, who believes his writing belongs to her and their 13 children. (She did hand copy War & Peace six times.)
Both Tolstoy and Valentin become pawns in the battle between Chertkov and Sofya. The old man seems unable to reconcile his continued love of his wife with his desire to uphold his ideals. He seems aware of the irony that the highest principle for a Tolstoyan is to love, yet it is the Tolstoyan mantra that impedes his loving his wife. Valentin is similarly torn, as Sofya urges him on in his love affair with Masha and tries to get him to record everything that happens at Telyatinki in a diary, while Chertkov has also given him a diary to record everything Sofya says. His malleability provides the perfect lens through which to watch Tolstoy’s life. He seems to find the good in everyone’s point of view, and to be flummoxed by all of the negativity at Tolstoy’s estate and Telyatinki, highlighting the ways in which he begins to see both the validity and absurdity of idealism. The filmic Tolstoy notices these same things as he watches the madness around his death unfold, noting the godliness of ideals and the folly of overinflated aspirations. He seems to be the least Tolstoyan of them all. This is the complexity of Tolstoy: These contradictions, even when they don’t involve him, represent his life and his writing. He believed that the truths he proclaimed were true; he just didn’t really seem to believe that it was possible to live up to them.
Effective direction and an ensemble cast of subtle actors make The Last Station convincingly deep. Plummer, Mirren, Giamatti, and McAvoy give outstanding performances, with great depth, subtlety and humor. The high drama of often rests just below the surface, creating a sense of reality within a story that is so fraught with tension that it seems nearly fantastical. Yet the film flounders, as Tolstoy reaches his last station, after finally having decided to leave his family and live his last days by himself, writing. He doesn’t get far, and the film nearly implodes under the heft of its consuming melodrama. Nonetheless, stories of such narrative complexities are rare. There is little flash and flair to the direction or the acting, and for that audiences can be thankful. It achieves a goal even higher than glitz: It is simply well done.