A gifted young writer is given the opportunity of a lifetime to become personal assistant to Russia’s greatest living novelist Leo Tolstoy, but finds his loyalties divided in Michael Hoffman’s handsome period drama.
The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy’s Final Year by Jay Parini and adapted by director Hoffman this is a fascinating and inclusive film; it assumes little knowledge of Tolstoy but doesn’t bludgeon those familiar with his life and works with needless backstory. The draw of the film lies in its period setting, a famous literary figure and a country on the brink of turmoil but the real stars here are the script, the characters and the acting which all combine to make for a gripping and moving drama.
It’s 1910. In his twilight years Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) lives on his country estate with his opinionated wife Countess Sofya Tolstaya (Helen Mirren) having abandoned writing novels in favour of political works that espouse ideals of truth and freedom to the Russian people, ideals that are being made a reality in a series of Tolstoyan Communes that put his thoughts into practice. Behind this political fervour is Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who favours the rejection of private property, advocates passive resistance and intends to keep Tolstoy’s work for the Russian people – and out of copyright. He hires Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), an avowed activist, vegetarian and virgin, as a private assistant to the frail Tolstoy but also as a spy within the household, ostensibly to report on the Countess who is concerned that her family’s inheritance will be lost when her husband passes away. This puts Valentin in a difficult position. The Countess begins to view him as a confidant and requests similar insight into Chertkov’s movements and motives. Although the Tolstoys are clearly in love, even after nearly half a century of marriage, their relationship becomes increasingly heated as ideology and external forces threaten to tear them apart. Meanwhile Valentin has finally found love blossoming in the shape of the feisty Masha (Kerry Condon).
Despite its backdrop of Tsarist Russia, the emergence of workers’ revolution and the battle between political ideologies The Last Station is really about what Tolstoy himself suggests is the most important thing in the world: ‘Love. Simple.’ At the heart of this is the fractured and occasionally violent relationship between the Tolstoys, a realistic and moving portrayal of a couple who have spent the majority of their lives together (the Countess has borne Leo 13 children) and now find themselves at the end of their journey. Although the tenderness of their scenes together – delightful bedroom scenes, loving glances – may appear to show an idealistic view of growing old, their passion also leads to hysterical outbursts, accusations and attempted suicide. This is a couple who cannot live together peacefully but cannot stay apart. Tolstoy’s political work threatens Tolstoya’s very existence when she notes that ‘Count Generosity is going to give away everything we own.’ To contrast this mature relationship we are also shown a burgeoning love interest with the innocent Valentin falling for the more worldly-wise Masha as he tries to balance his newly awakened desires with a need to succeed in his once-in-a-lifetime job.
The Last Station is very much an actors’ piece and Hoffman’s restrained and unshowy direction enhances his screenplay rather than dilutes it. Mirren is quite simply superb in her role, moving from elation and passion to pathos and despair. Plummer, surely 2009’s busiest 80-year old film actor, excels as the frail but determined Tolstoy, showing the contradictions in a man who is a self-confessed ‘not a very good Tolstoyan’, someone who espouses virtue but delights in recalling his sexual conquests, who dresses ‘like a Shepherd’ but maintains a huge estate. Particular ambiguity is given to Giamatti’s Chertkov in a film that never allows its characters to be painted as either saints or sinners (despite the Countess’s exasperated assertion that everyone seems to think her husband is Christ) but have misguided attitudes that affect their behaviour. Indeed Chertkov’s aims as opposed to his motivations are revealed gradually as the film progresses.
A beautifully crafted story of love across generations amidst the backdrop of political turmoil The Last Station is an emotional look at the fragility and passion of the human condition.
Optimum’s DVD and Blu-Ray release features a number of interviews and a trailer.