These are the final days of Leo Tolstoy’s life, though of course he does not know that. He has become more of a philosopher and spiritual leader than a novelist or literary figure, and his writings have spawned a pseudo-religion. He is a celebrity, a beloved father of Russia, a Christ figure to his followers, the Tolstoyans, who live in communes and renounce worldly pleasures. Meanwhile, the great writer, who is also a Count of Russia, lives in a grand mansion and argues incessantly with his wife, who thinks the whole movement to be nonsense and hogwash.
That is the premise for Michael Hoffman’s film “The Last Station.” But if you approach it expecting an illuminating biopic on one of the greatest writers ever to live, you will be sorely disappointed. Many critics have done so(especially the lovers and experts on Tolstoy) and have written negative reviews, primarily because “The Last Station” is not the movie they wanted it to be. Sadly, they have missed the movie it is, which is powerful and profound in its own way. This is not a biopic; this is a rumination on the nature of love.
Valentin Fedorovich Bulgakov (James McAvoy) is a young and idealistic Tolstoyan hired by the movement’s leader, Chertkov (Paul Giamatti, in all his mustache-twirling nastiness) to be personal secretary to Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer.) He is told, in no uncertain terms, that his real job is to spy on the actions and intentions of Tolstoy’s wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren) whom Chertkov views as the greatest enemy of the Tolstoyan movement. Particularly at stake is Tolstoy’s last will and testament; Chertkov wants him to turn all of his copyrights over to public domain. “Your mind is the rightful property of the Russian people,” he entreats. Sofya sees this as a grand betrayal of their family (she bore him 13 children) and fights Chertkov tooth and nail.
But when McAvoy arrives on the Tolstoy estate, he finds that things are not as black and white as Giamatti has painted them. Sofya is a warm and passionate woman, given to making grand scenes, breaking dishes and throwing herself on the floor, or in the pond. And yes, she is adamant about retaining the copyrights to her husband’s works after his death. But it is not because she wants the money; they are Russian nobility, after all, and want for nothing. It is because the works are a product of their marriage; She is the one who copied them for him; she the one who edited, gave him notes, revised, stayed up nights talking about the characters. His name may be on the cover, but her her soul is embedded in the books just as much as his. As Tolstoy ponders giving them over to the movement, Sofya feels that she is being abandoned by her husband, replaced by a bunch of charlatans practicing a fake religion.
And thus we begin to see what “The Last Station” is really about: it is a conflict between the idea of love, as practiced by Giamatti and the Tolstoyans, and the practice of love, embodied by the tumultous but powerful marriage between Tolstoy and his wife. The Tolstyoans seems joyless and cerebral, while Sofya is all Sturm un Drang. This is highlighted by a romantic subplot involving McAvoy and Kerry Condon, a resident at the Tolstoyan commune where he resides. Their romance is frowned upon by the director of the commune; (Tolstoyans practice celibacy) and eventually he must choose between the woman he loves and the movement that talks about love.
“The Last Station” ends tragically, just as Tolstoy’s life did. This is a story about two people who love each other, but unfortunately entrench themselves in opposite positions and cannot find common ground. The tragedy is that neither of them really, truly believe in what they fight for; Tolstoy isn’t that great a Tolstoyan himself, and looks at the movement with a sort of whimsical skepticism. And Sofya just wants to know that she is still loved, still listened to, still an important part of his life. Unfortunately, she expresses this in the worst, most counterproductive way possible; by screaming and storming about, making a scene and calling people names. And Tolstoy rumbles and roars about having a little peace in his home. It’s hard to believe that one good, honest heart-to-heart between these two wouldn’t allow them to find some common ground and reconcile. And harder still to watch these two passionate people, who so clearly love and need each other, carry their embittered, embattled, meaningless grudges very nearly to end of their lives.