Tolstoy Stops at “The Last Station”
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Have you ever read “War and Peace”? I’m not talking about the Cliffs Notes version. The 1000-page epic was cited by Newsweek as one of the World’s 100 Greatest Books.
Heavy reading. My self-imposed project for one summer in college.
This masterful work by Russian author Leo Tolstoy explores the human condition during the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Tolstoy himself described it as “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less an historical chronicle.”
Tolstoy was the most famous writer in Russia, perhaps the world. Later in life, he was revered as a saint-like figure, the icon of the so-called Tolstoyan Movement. His literal interpretations of the teaching of Jesus put him at odds with the Orthodox Church. His pacifist views influenced both Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
A film about the last days of his life – “The Last Station,” beautifully directed by Michael Hoffman – is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema. Its stars Christopher Plummer and Dame Helen Mirren have both been nominated for Academy Awards in this year’s Oscar race.
Plummer, replete with bushy white beard, is outstanding as Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. And Mirren matches his performance barb-for-barb as the irrepressible Countess Sofya.
This biographical tale is seen through the eyes of Valentin Bulgakov, a private secretary sent to spy on the Tolstoy household. Behind this espionage is the manipulative Vladmir Chertkov. A trusted follower of Tolstoyan philosophy, Chertkov is conniving to get the author to change his will, leaving his copyrights to the Russian people. Needless to say, Tolstoy’s wife does not like this idea of being cut out.
James McAvoy (“Atonement” “The Last King of Scotland”) is picture perfect as the devoted follower who doesn’t relish all this palace intrigue. After all, he’s a Tolstoyan who is worshipful of the great writer. Both a virgin and a vegetarian, his purity is challenged by a lustful young woman. And his loyalties are challenged by Countess Sofya.
Paul Giamatti (“Sideways,” “American Splendor”) is the mustache-twirling Chertkov, a worthy nemesis for the Countess.
But it’s Christopher Plummer (“Sound of Music,” “A Beautiful Mind”) who prances and struts on center stage, a man trying to balance fame and fortune with a non-materialistic philosophy. And Helen Mirren (Oscar-winner for “The Queen”) is a wife fearful of losing her husband to the world. Or to his sycophants who treat him like a Christ.
What we have here is a portrait of a troubled marriage, captured by note-taking secretaries and flash-powder photographers. After nearly half a century together, the Russian aristocrat and his headstrong wife are coming to a parting in their relationship. No more cock-a-doodle-doo. No more acceptance of differing viewpoints. No more battles to be waged over Tolstoy’s last will.
The scenery is lush, setting the mood for this tale of turn-of-the-century Russia. But it all comes down to “the last station,” a train depot at Astapovo where the great writer died.
No it’s not an epic drama like “War and Peace.” More a tragedy like “Anna Karenina.”
[from Solares Hill]