The Last Station
by George Sax
War? Sure Enough. Peace? Not So Much.
The Last Station
It’s a little startling to realize that Christopher Plummer’s current Oscar nomination is his first. You don’t have to set much store in the standards and practices of the Academy Awards to find this a curious omission. Plummer has been appearing in American movies for over half a century.
In the theater world, Plummer’s accomplishments and stature are unquestioned. His performances as King Lear at the Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare Festival and New York’s Lincoln Center in 2004 were hailed as historic achievements by many critics. His two most notable film appearances are probably as CBS news personality Mike Wallace in Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999) and, somewhat notoriously, opposite Julie Andrews in Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music (1965), a movie Plummer has been known to mention with a kitsch-disdaining sneer.
In recent weeks, area moviegoers have had prime opportunities to see him work his craft and art in two very different films: first, playing the title role in Terry Gilliam’s extravagantly imagined, wildly inconsistent The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, and now as Count Leo Tolstoy in Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station, lending his surpassingly fine technical facility and humane insights to this spirited but poignant film about the last days of the great Russian novelist and moral philosopher.
It’s 1910 and the 82-year-old international literary lion is at bay in his own home, besieged by his highly emotive and deeply passionate wife of 48 years, Sofya (Helen Mirren, up for a Best Actress Oscar). She has mounted an open domestic insurgency against her husband. She still reveres and desires him, but the moral regeneration movement that he has encouraged, and whose iconic head he is, fills her with contempt and anxiety. The crux of their most specific ongoing dispute is control over his copyrights. Stealthily and insidiously working against her is Tolstoy’s chief acolyte and the administrator of the count’s movement, Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who wants Tolstoy’s will changed to assign those rights to “the people” in a trust managed by Chertkov. Sofya, who has borne her husband 13 children, and, by his count, copied out drafts of War and Peace for him six times, thinks posterity and his family would be better served without what she regards as this madly utopian abandonment of her and the children.
From Moscow, Chertkov inserts an agent into the fraught situation at Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s country estate. Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) is ostensibly to be the writer’s secretary. His more important function is to report back on the countess’ activities and relations with her husband. The 23-year-old Valentin is all earnest innocence and lofty aspiration. He sneezes when nervous, particularly at erotically charged junctures, and is too awed to respond coherently when Tolstoy greets him by seeking this young newcomer’s views on life. (“I say a lot of things. What do you say?”) The much older man, attracted to Valentin’s dewy sincerity, becomes solicitous, and soon confides to him that he is still plagued by embarrassing residual appetites for life’s physical pleasures, despite his age and spiritually refined principles.
Meanwhile, Sofya, who knows what Chertkov is up to, moves to charm Valentin to her side, and indeed he begins to feel sympathies that aren’t compatible with his assignment. His ideals are further strained when he is aggressively seduced by Masha (Kerry Condon), a forthrightly skeptical young woman on an agricultural commune who makes little secret of her cheerful contempt for Chertkov’s pietistically chaste colleagues and assistants.
The stormy heart of the film is the tragicomic folie a deux of Tolstoy and Sofya, a struggle that’s at once intimate and political. In Plummer and Mirren’s consummately sure hands, the couple engage each other in a kind of Strindbergian marital conflict of comic excesses. The film sometimes seems to be aiming for high comedy, or even farce, but the underlying seriousness and pathos of this tragic clash are never in doubt. Mirren gives Sofya a mad force-of-nature passion; her portrayal has shifts of emotional dynamics and colors that achieve a sort of perverse grandeur. McAvoy is touchingly plausible as the youthful pawn who gains political and personal maturity as a witness to this primary turmoil.
The New York Times’ A.O. Scott sniffishly dismissed the film as suitable for those who like to “purchase acting in bulk and literary prestige at a discount,” but there’s nothing negligible about such superior acting, and The Last Station isn’t statically “literary.” Hoffman (Restoration, Soapdish), who adapted Jay Parini’s 1990 novel, has fashioned scenes and sequences that are deftly paced and staged. He has a disciplined sense of the uses of space and action. His film is also surprisingly faithful to the historical record, probably in part because everyone in and around Yasnaya Polyana seems to have kept a diary or journal. Tolstoy biographer A.N. Wilson has described life there as “scandalously horrible,” and this hothouse environment of agendas and conspiracies must have helped send Sofya around the bend.
It would be easy to at least gently mock Tolstoy’s stubbornly lofty, quasi-Christian philosophy, one that was doubtless both sincere and self-serving, particularly given its resounding incompatibility with what was happening in Russia, and the horror that would soon envelop Europe. Hoffman largely refrains from this approach, although he and his film are obviously enough on the side of life’s personal connections and the need for attention to practical realities. The Last Station is ultimately about the folly and failure and the necessity and persistence of love.
Watch the trailer for The Last Station
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