The Last Station
(M) Paramount DVD/BD
This biopic explores the final chapter in the life of famed Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
At this point, Tolstoy was a fierce critic of the Russian government, branded a heretic by his church for his radical, anarcho-pacifist Christian philosophy and yet much vaunted for his novels.
The Last Station shows the struggle between Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), his wife Sofya (Helen Mirren) and Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), a fanatical disciple.
Their argument is essentially about who should hold copyright of the work of the great artist after he dies: The wife who bore him 13 children, transcribed his work and continues to love him? Or the public; the Russian people who love and revere him as if he’s a king?
Among those who laud the great man are the Tolstoyans. They study Tolstoy’s writing and beliefs which are reduced here to a curious blend of pacifism, vegetarianism, celibacy and ideals of communal living including rejection of inherited and earned wealth.
Alesander Bulgakov (James McAvoy) is an ardent young Tolstoyan chosen to be Tolstoy’s private secretary. He’s sent in to spy for Chertkov — but also ends up seeing Sofya’s side of the story.
She has been with her husband for more than four decades and, in her mind, the work is theirs, together.
Extending this idea, she says at one point: “I am the work of your life. You are the work of mine. That’s what love is.”
Sofya feels usurped by Tolstoy’s acolytes and is annoyed that they treat her husband as if he is Christ — and that he seems to enjoy it.
Tolstoy knows that to stay true to his principles will involve conspiring against his wife and signing over the rights to his work and, as a result, much family inheritance.
Unable to deal with Sofya’s histrionics over his betrayal, Tolstoy flees, ending his days on November 7, 1910, in a railway station. The station is surrounded by reporters and photographers waiting for news.
Plummer and Mirren play their respective parts with great passion, tenderness, despair and just the right tinge of madness. Kerry Condon is also delightful as Masha, the spirited communard with whom Bulgakov falls in love. These three redeem a movie which, despite a witty script, clunks along and veers into melodrama more than necessary (Chertkov even has a moustache he waxes, villain style).
The closing credits are fabulous: I was moved by old footage of Tolstoy in situ, filmed in that jerky, Chaplain-esque way so distinctive of early film.
Oscars have been mentioned and I’d say Plummer and Mirren are in with a chance — but would be surprised if other aspects of the movie or its cast got a look in.
Such conjecture may prove me wrong.