Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn

The Last Station

On Sunday the 21st, we went to the Oriental Theater to see "The Last
Station," which concerns the last days of the author Leo Tolstoy. We
were interested because the trailers looked good, both Christopher
Plummer and Helen Mirren were nominated for Oscars for their
performances, very deservedly as it turns out; also, I knew very little
about the life of Tolstoy and was curious.
The viewpoint character of the film is Valentin Bulgakov, (James McAvoy)
who is hired to act as Tolstoy's secretary overtly, and also to act as a
team member in the tug-of-war between Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti),
the head of the "Tolstoyan movement" and Countess Sophia, Tolstoy's wife
(Mirren). Their long battle is over who has influence and control over
Tolstoy in his last days. Tolstoy has become a near-saint to some, due
to his adoption of an ascetic, collectivist, and non-violent philosophy,
which teaches against private property and in favor of passive
resistance to coercive authority. If this sounds familiar, it is because
Tolstoy's thoughts, set down in "The Kingdom of God is Within You,"
influenced Gandhi, among others. Chertkov is determined to cement
Tolstoy's saintly image by getting him to put his literary work,
including rights to "War and Peace," "Anna Karenina" and other works,
into the public domain as a grand gesture against private ownership.
Sophia, who rightly views these as the family treasure, is just as
determined to hang onto the works she feels she helped create and secure
the rights for herself and her children, and uses every tool at her
command to maintain a grip on her husband's life. Tolstoy (Plummer) is
whipsawed between his principles and Chertkov's moral suasions on the
one hand, and his love for family and Sophia's fierce protectiveness of
her prerogatives on the other. Bulgakov, who comes into the fray as a
fervent Tolstoyan (anarchist, pacifist, vegetarian, celibate), is first
with Chertkov but rapidly begins to have sympathy for the Countess'
embattled position.
Ultimately, the aged Tolstoy, who has come to the "anything for a quiet
life" stage, can no longer stand being caught between Sophia's fiery
passion and Chertkov's glacial pressure and flees his home, taking the
local railway as far south as it goes, to the "last station" of the
title. Although Chertkov is a sincere Tolstoyan (and remained so until
his death in 1936) he comes off the heavy in the film, and, indeed,
although he speaks of "love of mankind" as Tolstoy does, it seems a
chilly kind of love that has no room for "sentiment" or "Romanticism,"
which the character roundly condemns.
Helen Mirren has the stand-out performance here as the scene-chewing
Countess. It's too much, however, to call her character a "drama
queen"-she knows very well what she is doing and uses every lever she
can find to accomplish her purpose, without shame or remorse. Plummer
is just as good as the tired old man who's trying to keep a low profile
in his declining years. They are well supported by Giamatti, McAvoy, and
Kerry Condon as the anarchist teacher who takes Valentin's virginity,
and Anne-Marie Duff as Tolstoy's daughter, Sasha, (Alexandra Lvovna),
who is also wounded in the war raging around her parents.
Highly recommended for fans of historical bio-pics. I thought it was
very well done overall, and is apparently well-regarded by the current
Tolstoy clan, although it does show an earthy side to their 'saintly'
ancestor. The film does contain one sex scene and some tasteful partial
nudity. The performances by Mirren and Plummer are well worth the price
of admission.
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