The Last Station
Film review by: Witney Seibold
It’s tempting, when making a film biography of an artist, singer or author, to show that their lives were very much like the works they produced. In Michael Hoffman’s “The Last Station,” we see how Tolstoyan the life of Leo Tolstoy was. When this film was released, I was in the middle of reading Anna Karenina, so seeing the film was a particularly rich experience, and the drama came to a level of stirring life. If you are familiar with the works and life of Leo Tolstoy, this film is a must-see. If you are not, I can still wholly recommend it.
It is 1910, the last year of Tolstoy’s life. A man named Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) has become the head of a “Tolstoyan” movement, a new politico-religio-socio-movement that is similar to the warm-hearted proto-Communism of Levin in Anna. Tolstoy himself (Christopher Plummer) likes to preach his movement, and has many followers, but is himself an irascible sensualist who lives in luxury with his daughter Sasha (Anne-Marie Duff), and his long suffering wife Sofya (the irrepressible Helen Mirren). There is a rivalry between Chertkov and Sofya, as both want the legal rights to Tolsoy’s hit novels. Chertkov because he is acting in the great-works-should-belong-to-everyone idiom, and Sofya because she feels she needs the money to continue living in reasonable comfort with her children. The interplay is more than just a simple argument; like in one of Tolstoy’s novels, we really get to feel the complexity of each character’s motivations. Tolstoy himself, meanwhile, seems to flip-flop on what he wants to do, and what he feels he needs to do with his works. His final decision (without giving too much away) is one of hideous reluctance.
Thrown in between these two sides is the naïve twentysomething Tolstoyan disciple Valentin (James McAvoy). He is thrilled, as he will finally be able to meet his hero. Upon their first meeting, Valentin sneezes and sobs. Valentin, who is going to move onto a Tolstoyan hippie commune, is asked by Chertkov is spy upon the countess. The countess, a little later, will ask Valentin to spy upon Chertkov. In addition to this double-dealing, Valentine has also attracted the eye of the pretty blonde Masha (Kerry Condon), a sexually liberated woman who wants nothing more than to sleep with him. This is a no-no, as Tolstoyism preaches celibacy.
Tolstoy, as he himself points out several times throughout the film, is not a very good Tolstoyan. He is introduces to a grammaphone, and hears a record of himself speaking. He is bored by his own rhetoric, and leaves the table. Sofya puts on a record of beautiful music, and he is arrested by its beauty. Tolstoy may have preached lessons and philosophies about religion and marriage and history through his books, but was, in practice, a much more relaxed and loving soul, and far less dogmatic.
The film eventually takes a tragic turn, as it must. Tolstoy begins dying, and leaves his wife for the country. He never makes it further than a distant train station where he was to die. Sofya is suicidal upon her husband’s leaving. Her hysterical behavior was one of the factors driving him away in the first place. Parallels between Sofya and Anna Karenina are not only acknowledged, but amazingly astute.
The screenplay (by Hoffman, based on the novel by Jay Parini) is complete and literary and, upon reflection, the perfect way to encapsulate the drama in Tolstoy’s life. I don’t claim to be a Tolstoy scholar, but I have read his two major works now, and can understand a lot about what the man was and what he stood for, and the glorious ambivalence he must have felt. This is a good movie.