Movie Review: The Last Station
The Charlotte Observer
Russian author Leo Tolstoy was many things: a writer of two massive novels that have entered the world canon (“War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”), a Christian freethinker, a believer in nonviolent protest against authority, an advocate of serfs’ rights (who nonetheless owned a huge estate with serfs on it) and occasionally a crank: His attack on Shakespeare, which dismisses “King Lear” as intolerable hackwork, is the most dunderheaded essay by a major writer I’ve ever seen.
Yet the 82-year-old Tolstoy in “The Last Station” is none of those. Though played with vigor by the Oscar-nominated Christopher Plummer, he floats through this film about the last months of his life like a petulant ghost. He says nothing profound. His one solution for any problem is to walk away from it, or let himself be steered back and forth by stronger-willed people.
And so the movie seemed a disappointment at first, until I decided I was missing the point: It’s actually a drama about the way people treat a celebrity – with fear or reverence, as a source of income or reflected glory– and the way their own personalities change around him, while his stays the same. In that way, the film’s a small triumph.
Countess Sofya Tolstoy (Helen Mirren, also Oscar-nominated) sees her husband as a perennial source of income for their descendants – and, at the end of their 48 years of marriage, as a man with whom she has surprisingly little in common but loves just the same. She supports the Russian Orthodox Church, which he has renounced; she adheres to the traditional Russian class system, of which he disapproves; she thinks only of her family, while he thinks about the family of man. (I wish writer-director Michael Hoffman, who adapted Jay Parini’s novel, had shown us more of what drew them together initially. Sex, yes, but what else?)
Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti, literally stroking his mustache with a quietly villainous leer) wants to spread Tolstoy’s philosophy across the world and hopes to use the proceeds from the old man’s copyrights to do so.
Into the fray steps Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), who’s a virgin and a vegetarian because of Tolstoy’s attitudes toward sex and meat. He becomes the old man’s secretary, and everyone uses him as a spy against his will. Soon he pairs off with lusty peasant Masha (Kerry Condon), who breaks one of Valentin’s habits of abstinence.
Except for Valentin and Masha, everyone comes off as crazy or doctrinaire, so it’s hard to get worked up about the battle over Tolstoy’s will.
What’s most compelling is the way everyone loves the old man – wrong-headedly, yes, or too zealously. We feel sympathy for all these smaller trees clustered around a tottering oak.
The film was shot in Russia and Germany, with extras who look as if they might have stepped out of a Russian Orthodox choir or a field of wheat. Russian composer Sergei Yevtushenko supplies a wistful score that recalls Tchaikovsky.
Only the British voices briefly take us out of this carefully recreated world. (The Canadian Plummer and U.S.-born Giamatti wisely attempt no accents.) But if we’ve tolerated Nazis who sounded like Londoners for 60 years, we can’t balk at a Russian who sounds like Queen Elizabeth.