Life, love, and death are examined closely in The Last Station, director Michael Hoffman’s award-winning film that explores the fraught-filled final year of Russian author and spiritual teacher Leo Tolstoy. Produced in Germany and initially receiving a limited December 2009 release to qualify for awards season, the film is finally seeing a wider release across the U.S., including a run right here in Salt Lake at the Broadway Centre Theater.
Though Tolstoy is almost exclusively known as a purveyor of Russian fiction-including War and Peace and Anna Karenina-in his later years he turned his attention to matters of faith and philosophy, expounding on such topics as the dissolution of private property, the purity of chastity, and the plight of Russia’s poor and disenfranchised serfs. He taught a doctrine of devotion to mankind through love, and along the way gathered a number of followers who collectively came to be known as Tolstoyans.
In The Last Station, Christopher Plummer plays the man himself, also known as Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, and he is caught in a battle (both internally and externally) between the aristocratic lifestyle that was handed down to him by his forefathers and the life of the religious ascetic who divests himself of worldly possessions in order to seek spiritual truths. His wife, the Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren), wants to preserve her children’s inheritance and to keep safe the family’s estate of Yasnaya Polyana. Her arch-nemesis, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), friend to the Count and a devoted Tolstoyan himself, is pressuring his teacher to fully embrace the ideals that he preaches and to sign over the copyright of his fiction works to the public domain so that they can belong wholly to the Russian people. To aid him in his mission, Chertkov brings in Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) as Tolstoy’s new private secretary, and secretly tasks him with reporting on the Countess’s every move.
Outside of all the subterfuge and political machinations, however, what we’re really dealing with here is a love story. Sofya loves her husband, and more than anything else she wants him to love her back and to provide her with the closeness and affection that they shared in their early years. Leo loves Sofya, but feels that his devotion to his principles must come first. The resulting tug-of-war forces the Countess to use every manipulative trick in her extensive repertoire to get some attention from her husband. Caught in the middle is Bulgakov, young and idealistic, who despite Chertkov’s intentions develops a sympathetic relationship with Sofya and often acts as her liaison in the power struggle. Along the way, he also meets the beautiful Masha (Kerry Condon), and the encounter kindles a love of his own and forces him to reassess his views about male-female relations.
Plummer gives an intriguing performance as the novelist-turned-spiritual-teacher, but anyone who is familiar with the historical figure will get the impression that his Tolstoy is a bit too jolly, almost like a Russian Santa Claus. History indicates that the real Leo Tolstoy was a very severe man and much too overburdened with the concerns of his life to spend much time being good-humored. McAvoy, for his part, proves once again that he is one the most promising of today’s up-and-coming actors (a sort of anti-Shia LeBeouf, if you will) and is fully believable as the na’ve and uncorrupted Bulgakov. Giamatti as Chertkov paints the picture of a man who is more devoted to Tolstoyan principles than Tolstoy himself in a performance that is very reminiscent of his turn as Inspector Uhl in The Illusionist. However, it’s Helen Mirren who stands out foremost. She owns this movie with her grandiose and melodramatic expression of pathos. It’s no surprise, really. Mirren is simply one of the greatest players in the history of the business and it’s a shame that too many of today’s younger generation of moviegoers have no idea who she is.
The Last Station is an import worth bringing across the pond. Hoffman has given us a film that does not rely on special effects or stylistic flourishes to tell its story. Rather, the direction is effective without being intrusive, and he relies on the strength of the narrative and the interactions between the story’s characters to drive it forward. I would caution anyone who requires explosions or space ships to stay far away, but for everyone else The Last Station is heartily recommended. It’s a human-centered, based-on-a-true-story drama that captures the spirit of a time and place in history and provides a glimpse into the life of one of Russia’s greatest figures.