Tolstoy in (and out of) Love
By Chris Wisniewski
The Last Station
Dir. Michael Hoffman, UK/Russia, Sony Pictures Classics
“Oh, but that happens only in novels and never in real life. In real life this preference for one may last for years (that happens very rarely), more often for months, or perhaps for weeks, days, or hours.” – Leo Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata
Leo and Sofya Tolstoy had one of the great literary marriages—a passionate half-century love affair that resulted in the birth of 13 children, a deep and abiding partnership that inspired and helped to produce some of the most significant works in all of world literature, and a scornful, destructive relationship that drove each of them to the brink of insanity. They were collaborators, lovers, and formidable adversaries, and theirs was a story so richly dramatic that Tolstoy pilfered liberally from it in War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Kreutzer Sonata, among other works. With The Last Station, writer-director Michael Hoffman, whose best film is the delightfully absurd satire Soapdish (other, lesser credits include A Midsummer Night's Dream, One Fine Day, and Restoration), takes this legendarily tempestuous relationship and turns it into middling awards bait.
The Last Station offers many of the pleasures one would expect from a December Sony Pictures Classics release (it's a great excuse for Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren to give big, fiery performances) without coming anywhere near being worthy of its subjects. Its interest in Tolstoy—the artist, the religious zealot, and the man—and his marriage is largely incidental; the filmmaking is proficient at best. The most generous thing that can be said about The Last Station is that it does nothing to offend, which begs a larger question too often set aside when discussing the year-end deluge of Oscar movies: why was this film made in the first place?
The Last Station picks up with Leo (Plummer) and Sofya (Mirren) in the last year of the master's life, after he renounced sex, violence, and private property, founding a radical anarchist Christian sect called Tolstoyism. Tolstoy's disciple Vladimir Cherkov (Paul Giamatti), a sycophant bent on getting the author to leave the copyright for his collected works to the Russian people, dispatches Valentin (James McAvoy), a young author and Tolstoyan, to serve as Tolstoy's private secretary—and to spy on Sofya, who sees in Cherkov a rival for her husband's affections. When she gets wind of Cherkov's conspiracy to amend her husband's will in order to usurp her inheritance of the copyright, Sofya starts to go a little nuts. Funny nuts. She breaks a few dishes, spies on the conspirators from a balcony, and fires a pistol at a picture of Cherkov. Mirren, who's all wily charm, has Giamatti outmatched from the beginning (he can basically play two types: sympathetic weasel and despicable weasel—his Cherkov falls in the latter category), and so, setting history aside, as a matter of dramatic motivation it's hard to fathom what leads Plummer's Tolstoy to trust Cherkov and renounce his wife.
In the movie's opening titles, Hoffman provides a fair amount of background on Tolstoy and his conversion, indicating that some of his contemporaries considered the novelist "a living saint" for popularizing his strangely literal Christian pseudo-cult, but he never actually dramatizes the author's spiritual torment, the deep existential insecurity that led him to give up his noble title and alienate Sofya. Plummer's magnetic in the role— charismatic, warm, and mercurial—but he can't save an underwritten character. In one of the movie's best scenes, he shares a luxurious outdoor meal with his friends and family. They're waited on by servants, and they listen to a phonograph, which the luddite Tolstoy dismisses until Sofya puts on opera. Thanks to her inspired intervention, he comes around to the technology, and the two share a sweet moment that rapidly devolves into an altercation. The scene contains everything otherwise missing in the film: a delicate attention to the strange power play between husband and wife and a subtle evocation of Tolstoy's conviction and hypocrisy, his lingering attachment to sensual and worldly pleasures and his spiteful rejection of Sofya for failing to understand his religious commitments.
Most of the time, Hoffman depicts Tolstoy as a doddering, grandfatherly old genius; his accomplishments and inner turmoil are alluded to, discussed, and debated by others, but never given dramatic expression. When Valentin first meets him, they don't talk about Tolstoy but rather about the young secretary's aspirations and his work. Valentin leaves the conversation exhilarated—“I am no one, and you are Lev Tolstoy!” he exclaims, amazed that so august a personage would take an interest in him. The two characters and actors have an endearing rapport, but the scene betrays one of the movie's critical problems—The Last Station is more concerned with the people who surround Tolstoy than with Tolstoy himself, and as such, it's missing a compelling dramatic center. Valentin, who is more or less a cipher with an annoying tick (he sneezes when nervous), becomes the film's de facto protagonist, the one character with access to all three principal players in the dispute over the will. To make this curious bit of dramaturgy more coherent, Hoffman makes Valentin a foil for Tolstoy: like his mentor, he's a committed Tolstoyan—until he meets spunky Masha (Kerry Condon), a self-possessed blond who lives in the Tolstoyan colony. McAvoy is too adorable for a life of celibacy, so it's only a matter of time before Valentin loses his virginity to Masha and comes around to the idea that romantic love is a worthier calling than nonviolent, celibate, property-less anarchism.
This dreadful romantic subplot is indicative of the movie's tendency to turn Tolstoyism into a straw man propped up rather ineffectually by Cherkov. Tolstoy has a hard time adhering to his stringent doctrine—he kills a fly without a second thought, waxes nostalgic for his bachelorhood, and puts up little resistance when Sofya seduces him ("You're my cock!" she exclaims, as he clucks like a chicken)—and Valentin, too, gives the whole thing up as soon as he gets Masha into bed. The movie has no believable advocate for Tolstoy's convictions, so its central conflict between romantic love and spiritual fervor is more or less inert. Hoffman directs with a light and stylistically busy touch (frequent handhelds, a few 360 degree shots, and an obtrusive score), and the gravity of Leo and Sofya's marital meltdown gets lost along the way: she had to endure the indignity of losing her inheritance after suffering through nearly fifty years of marriage to an impossibly difficult man whom she loved, admired, and despised at the same time; he saw his affection for his wife as an obstacle to his very salvation. Since the film, like its source novel by Jay Parini, focuses on Tolstoy’s last year, it dispenses with the trappings of a traditional biopic without sacrificing a compelling dramatic hook— could a filmmaker ask for a more riveting story to work with?—but The Last Station’s “love is all that matters” conclusion comes off as trite.
Hoffman telegraphs his sympathies early when he opens the movie with a quote from War and Peace: "Everything I know, I know because I love." The Last Station seems content to rest on this point, though Tolstoy (who wrote War and Peace in the first years of his marriage) came to take a more cynical attitude towards the subject. "They never understood a word he's ever written," complains Sofya of Cherkov and his disciples. The charge could be extended to Hoffman as well. If The Last Station is a paean to romantic love and a tragic story of two lifelong companions torn apart by manipulative schemers, Tolstoy, in his genius, saw a more complicated truth: that it's possible to adore someone, even build a life with that person, and hate them at the same time, and that all of us, even geniuses, must make peace with whatever divine force we believe in before we die, as each of us does, alone.