Tolstoy’s Tortuous Journey Ends at “The Last Station”
By Yvette Cervera ’11, Staff Writer
Leo Tolstoy is internationally renowned for authoring two of the most celebrated novels of all time, “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.” While his works are familiar to many a literature student around the world, less is generally known about the man behind these masterpieces.

Readers of his lengthy tome “War and Peace” may be surprised to learn that the title could be an apt description of his personal life. Leo Tolstoy — or Lev Tolstoy, as he is more accurately called — and his wife, Sofya, were known for their volatile relationship, every disagreement of which was followed closely by the 19th-century equivalent of paparazzi.

It is revelations such as these that are the basis for this somewhat fictionalized version of Tolstoy’s final days, providing a glimpse into the life of the man who inspired the Tolstoyan movement. Adapted from Jay Parini’s novel of the same name, “The Last Station” is set in the year 1910, during Tolstoy’s 82nd and final year, when the movement faced one of its greatest challenges: ensuring that the Russian people would be bequeathed the copyrights to the author’s work after his death.

Despite amassing a number of acolytes who lived by Tolstoy’s recommended way of life as celibate pacifists living and working together in a Russian commune, Tolstoy (spectacularly embodied by Christopher Plummer) was the first to admit he was not the model Tolstoyan. Rather, he was a walking contradiction, donning peasant smocks while milling about the grounds of his private estate, disregarding his status as a noble and spurning the significant fortune accrued throughout his successful writing career.

Tolstoy’s suggested way of life, which his devotees are more than happy to follow, is a constant source of irritation for his wife, Sofya (a delightfully wicked Helen Mirren). She is spoiled and accustomed to her comfortable lifestyle and has no qualms about voicing her considerable distaste for her husband’s idealistic notions, which leaves her having to woo her husband each time she wants to make him forget his practice of chastity.

“You all think he’s Christ,” accuses Sofya to a small assembly of devoted Tolstoyans, including her daughter, Sasha (Anne-Marie Duff). Tolstoy’s doctor (John Sessions) responds by saying that he doesn’t believe the author is Christ; “I do believe he’s a prophet, though,” he elaborates in all seriousness.

Threatening to further upend Sofya’s cherished existence is the head of the Tolstoyans, Vladimir Chertkov (a villainous Paul Giamatti). The mustache-twirling spearhead of Tolstoy’s movement is the most active advocate in the attempt to prevent his longtime friend from leaving his legacy to his children as opposed to his adoring fans.

Placed under house arrest by the Russian government, Chertkov is removed from the happenings at the Tolstoy estate. Fearful that Sofya will sway her husband’s opinion away from what Chertkov feels is best for the movement, he hires Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) as Tolstoy’s secretary.

Young and naïve, but exceedingly earnest, Valentin unwittingly acts as a spy for Chertkov, with the instructions to write down everything he sees. The equally guileful Countess Tolstaya also elicits Valentin’s assistance in learning the inner workings of the Tolstoyan movement.

In addition to being in the unfortunate position at the center of the bedlam, Valentin is being tempted by the sexual attentions of fellow Tolstoyan, Masha (Kerry Condon), who follows the rules of the commune as she so chooses. Blunt and opinionated, Masha shows Valentin that he can form his own thought, rather than follow those of his idol with religious fervor.

With a plot dominated by conspiratorial meetings and innumerable shouting matches, “The Last Station” is surprisingly humorous. Writer/director Michael Hoffman does an admirable job contrasting the film’s seriousness with lighthearted moments, providing laughs in the most unexpected circumstances. There is one particular bedroom scene between Tolstoy and his wife that is undeniably the most entertaining moment of the film.

What really makes the film, though, is the cast. McAvoy and Giamatti are superb actors in their own right, but they play second fiddle to the real stars, Plummer and Mirren. As Tolstoy, Plummer is wise and passionate. He’s the perfect complement to the reckless abandonment with which Mirren portrays Sofya Tolstaya.

As a married couple on the rocks, Plummer and Mirren have combustible chemistry that heightens the intensity of every quarrel and sweetens every affectionate moment between their characters. The two actors brilliantly portray the deep connection between Tolstoy and his wife that stemmed from a fruitful marriage, which produced 13 children and spanned nearly half a century. It is their performances alone that make “The Last Station” worth seeing.

Issue 18, Submitted 2010-03-09 21:46:41