The Last Station

Leo Tolstoy, even though born to an aristocratic family, was always something of a revolutionary. His experiences as an officer in the Crimean War left him a lifelong pacifist. Nineteenth century European philosophers influenced him into becoming an anarchist. He always identified more with the peasants than his own class. These things melded with his own rebellious form of Christianity to create a new philosophy and then a movement. But Tolstoy was also a passionate man. He married an equally passionate  Baroness, Sofya, who never shared his philosophy and for 48 years they battled and made up.

Tolstoy died just as the modern age of mass media was beginning. Photographers and cameramen camped on the lawn of his opulent estate, hoping to get a glimpse of the greatest living novelist or any member of his family. There was also a movement that had sprung up around his writings and leading it for Tolstoy was Vladimir Chertkov, here played by Paul Giamatti. By this point, Tolstoy, played by Christopher Plummer, was too old and tired to even bother to find out what Chertkov was doing with the movement, much less stop whatever he might have seen as abuses. Sofya, played by Helen Mirren, sees Chertkov as a threat. She believes, rightly as it turns out, that Chertkov is trying to get Tolstoy to sign away the rights to all his writings and leave his family destitute. Chertkov believes he is in a fight with Sofya for Tolstoy’s favor.

At the beginning of the movie, Chertkov is under house arrest in Moscow and can’t get out to the Tolstoy estate or the Tolstoyan commune near it. So he hires a secretary, Valentin Bulgakov, played by James McAvoy, to help Tolstoy with his writing and to report on what’s going on in the house. Valentin, however, begins to sympathize with Sofya, at least to the point where he can serve as a go-between to the two camps when the crisis comes.

This is a tremendous cast. There are all kinds of examples of subtleties in the performances. Tolstoy, for example, talks of his sympathy and affinity for the peasants, and yet you never see him notice a servant, much less thank one for bringing him a cup of tea or his meals. Like a born aristocrat, he accepts the service as his due. When Sofya hints that Chertkov is a homosexual, the look on Giamatti’s face shows that she’s landed a punch, probably because it’s true. Plummer, Giamatti and Mirren are all tremendous actors, who find every ounce of humor and pathos in this script.

The Last Station is an enjoyable movie, but not a perfect one. The story meanders a bit. There is a subplot about Valentin having an affair with a woman on the commune that really doesn’t add anything.

But it could have been a lot worse.


1 Response to “The Last Station”

  1. 1 Richard Hurley November 6, 2011 at 7:04 am

    “There is a subplot about Valentin having an affair with a woman on the commune that really doesn’t add anything.”

    I have to disagree. Chertkov’s vision is abstract, misogynistic, and ultimately at odds with life as humans actually live it. Valentin’s discovery of love is what opens his eyes to Chertkov’s shortcomings. V sees in the relationship of Lev and Sofya a bond between a man and a woman that brings much bitterness, but he also sees the strong, lingering affection. Through his own experience with love, he learns there is no way to avoid this central theme in human life. Without the affair, Valentin would not have felt the depth of the forces at play in the Tolstoy household – and might have remained a cerebral acolyte.

    If there is a dramatic flaw in this movie, it lies in the blindness of Tolstoy to Chertkov’s inhumanity. The Tolstoy character (as drawn in this movie) would not have let this bloodless man exercise such power over his household.

    Still, a very thoughtful movie, beautifully acted. It’s heartening to see the film industry is still capable of making a film worth watching.

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