The Last Station
Period biopic mixes the lusty with the literary
The Last Station
Directed by Michael Hoffman
Cast: Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy
Late in life (in his 70s), widely famed Russian novelist Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy (known to his friends as “Leo Baby”) turned his attentions away from fiction and dabbled in the creation of a number of utopian communes. These live/work communes were based on Tolstoy’s own particular philosophy—one that espoused nonviolence, the abolition of private property, a strict vegetarian diet and an adherence to the principals of celibacy. (Yeah, sorry, Leo Baby, but you lost me on that last one.) Though the Tolstoyan Movement didn’t last very long, it allegedly influenced the thinking of such latter spiritual leaders as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
Like most intellectuals throughout time who revered the peasant classes for their simple morality, Tolstoy didn’t exactly practice what he preached. He spent most of his life hanging out on the lavish estate of his rich wife, the Countess Sophia Andreyevna, and complaining about his fame and fortune. In The Last Station, a dexterous new biopic from writer-director Michael Hoffman (Restoration, A Midsummer Night’s Dream), the War and Peace-penner (Christopher Plummer in his best role since ... I’m gonna go with ever) admits, “I’m not a very good Tolstoyan.”
For The Last Station (based on the book by Jay Parini), our window into Tolstoy’s conflict-filled world is through the eyes of naive young intellectual Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland). It’s round about 1910 and the starstruck Mr. Bulgakov has just been hired to act as a personal secretary to Tolstoy by Tolstoy’s best friend / literary executor Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti, reveling in his status as designated bad guy). In reality, Chertkov just wants Bulgakov to act as a spy, keeping an eye on Tolstoy’s lusty, emotional and overly dramatic wife, the countess (Helen Mirren in full grande dame mode). Chertkov is both the head organizer and chief backer of Tolstoyism and has a vested interest in keeping the aging Mr. Tolstoy’s image as “saintly” as possible.
While a historical drama about the dotage of Leo Tolstoy sounds rather ponderous, The Last Station wisely keeps things light and witty. The Countess Sophia soon drafts the hapless Bulgakov as a counterspy against Chertkov. And despite his sincere commitment to the ascetic principals of Tolstoyism, Bulgakov finds himself tempted out of celibacy by the rather convincing charms of a commune worker named Masha (Kerry Condon, Octavia from HBO’s “Rome”). With its various intrigues and dalliances, The Last Station plays out more like an English drawing room farce than a drab, literary biopic. (The age-old stage convention of having U.K. actors filling in for “foreigners” helps as well with that impression.)
While it would be hard to label the film a comedy, the well-cast actors do give it a certain sunny joie de vivre. Plummer and Mirren do wonderful work as the old married couple who derive as much emotional satisfaction now out of fighting as they once did out of lovemaking. (Both, it should be noted, have been nominated for Academy Awards for this film.) Though it has less impact on the story, McAvoy and Condon’s affair is also filled with lighthearted lust. It’s only in the film’s final quarter (when the curious title comes into play) that the narrative takes a turn for the serious.
If there’s a criticism to be leveled at The Last Station, it’s that Hoffman’s script (and I’m assuming Parini’s book) looks a little too unkindly upon the whole Tolstoyan Movement. Here, not even Mr. Tolstoy seems to buy it. And Chertkov, the movement’s most vocal cheerleader, is portrayed as little more than a conniving, ass-kissing opportunist. I can’t say whether that’s historically accurate. But given the amount of good and bad humanity every other character is afforded here, it’s a bit of a shame that Giamatti gets stuck as a one-note, mustache-twirling (literally) villain. Emotionally, The Last Station is a rich ode to love, life and abiding passion. Philosophically, it’s a bit of a toss-off.