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'The Last Station'

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Jay Parini, The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy's Final Year
This past week, as part of the arrival of awards season in Hollywood, I was able to catch the early release of the film The Last Station in brief screenings that lasted only a week. The film's official launch is in January, but its stint in theaters (New York and Los Angeles) is a mere technicality for official Oscar consideration. Having underestimated its interest level, I was turned away on my first attempt and then had to purchase my ticket a week in advance, barely sneaking in on the last day of the screenings. My efforts were greatly rewarded. NB: Some spoilers follow.

Written and adapted by Michael Hoffman from the novel of the same name by Jay Parini, The Last Station is the story of the last days of Lev Tolstoy. Having reached near mythological status as a writer and spiritualist, Tolstoy is entrenched in his estate at Yasnaya Polana where the rift between the very movement he created and his eroding marriage are reaching an inevitable collision, compounded by the ensuing dread that his days are numbered. Pitted on either side of this dog(matic) fight are Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) as the leader of “The Movement” and his wife, Sofya Andreyevna (an inspired Helen Mirren).

The battle brewing is over possession of the rights of all of Tolstoy’s works after he has passed. Chertkov, leader of the ‘Tolstoyans’ and the movement of passive resistance (based upon the later writings), believes they should be signed over to the Russian people. In other words, he should have full charge of the profits in order to spread the word. Sofya, on the other side, senses the encroachment of this opportunist not only upon her estate but to her very marriage itself. She not only sees Chertkov as motivated by ego and greed but supposes that Chertkov’s adoration of Tolstoy goes beyond worship and into sexual longing.

All this sets the stage for a complicated, dark, and often humorous battle royale for actors at the height of their talents. At the center is Tolstoy himself, embodied here by the magnificent Christopher Plummer. The actor has testified to the daunting task of taking on such a towering historical figure as the man who wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina, as well as many short stories, essays, and novelettes (indeed, it’s even hard to categorize his works as they constantly betrayed forms). The result Plummer arrived at was simplicity. The effect is absolutely captivating as his Tolstoy ranges from meditative to combustive, joyful, and resigned but always with this knowing light behind his eyes.

Parini’s novel, published in 1990, was written as a sort of mosaic, in various first person accounts taken from the copious notes of each witness involved with the estate. From chapter to chapter each character’s confessional-like entries keep shifting your perceptions of the events taking place and the motivations of those involved. One of the ironies of the film is how everyone is constantly scribbling notes as events are happening and yet, the great man himself, Tolstoy, is rarely seen writing at all. (The effect is akin to attending a family reunion where everyone is texting. I felt quite empathetic with Mirren’s shrieking at a sycophantic underling, “Stop writing!” as I am an enemy to all things Twitter.)

Faced with the not admirable task of adapting a book that takes place completely in journal entries, Michael Hoffman has created a balanced and shifting film that flies along as it drops in on varying duos, each conspiring with the other for information about the leanings of Tolstoy (the ‘Count’ to some). The inroad for Hoffman to these Byzantine players is the young and (briefly) innocent, Valentin Bulgakov (played here by James McAvoy). An up-and-coming writer and good ‘Tolstoyan’, Chertkov sees Bulgakov as the perfect and pliable spy in the guise of a much-needed assistant to the Count and the estate. Indeed his real role is to write everything he sees, “everything,” in order to arm Chertkov with as much information so he knows what he’s up against when he faces Sofya. Placed under a sort of house arrest (the resistance movement was seen as dangerous to the government), Chertkov is a sort of caged, ambitious animal who is armed with all the ‘right reasons’ for his subterfuge. He’s doing it for “the people.” Giamatti, part of a perfect casting, has the humorous and regretful joy of a handlebar mustache that he actually twists throughout the film.

While Bulgakov is our road into the story and the estate, make no mistake, this is Sofya’s movie. The woman that wrote War and Peace six times by hand and was a chief voice in the sculpting of Anna Karenina has historically gotten a bad shake. Indeed, it is hard to ignore her paranoid rants in the diaries where at points she wants to “pluck out his (Tolstoy’s) heart with my bare hands.” Yet the complication of a woman defied on all fronts, even by her daughter (who has seemingly replaced her as his ally in writing) and a husband who is drifting further and further from the man she married into a collective idea of a saint is hard for her to swallow.

Mirren, the daughter of a Russian father, knows this woman throughout. When I heard she was cast in the role it seemed a matter of common sense. She allows Sofya her dignity, her shame, and even her suicidal absurdities. One is never sure if her wild antics (there are many) are simple theatrical manipulations or sincere expressions of the deep wounds being inflicted by those around her. I was left with the feeling that both were true in Mirren’s performance.

The title of The Last Station refers to the train station, Astrapovo, where the Count finally passes away at the end of a botched escape plan from his wife, the contradictory luxury of his estate, and the media frenzy that has current reverberations. There, detached from all the things he spent a lifetime cultivating, the great passing of the man, and not the idea of him, comes crashing home to all around.

Michael Hoffman, a former Rhodes scholar, himself seems a contradiction when you look at his career. The same man that directed One Fine Day and Soapdish is also responsible for such films as A Midsummer’s Nights Dream and Restoration. The combination of light and dark mix here in his game ensemble and the gorgeous backdrop of 1910 Russia. The Last Station hews away at the complexity of marriage, idolatry versus reality, and most importantly, the love of humanity and the humanity of love. One can only hope, come Oscar time, that this film is the Academy’s first stop and its last.

The Last Station is scheduled to open on January 15.

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