The Last Station
War and Piece: Drama about Tolstoy’s troubled marriage is a surprisingly lusty portrait of literary life.
Thursday, February 25, 2010
“Practice what you preach” is a saying that has undone many an ideologue, and Leo Tolstoy, one of the world’s great writers and thinkers, struggled with his own appetites, which ran counter to a publicly disseminated personal philosophy that pushed for celibacy, passive resistance, and a renunciation of property and wealth.
Writer/director Michael Hoffman’s nimble, considerable The Last Station (adapted from Jay Parini’s novel of the same name) dramatizes Tolstoy’s end days, when those appetites are snuffing out, with not insignificant flare-ups. These are not calm times – more war than peace – with Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) in no-man’s-land between warring factions: His high-strung wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren), rails on and on about his radical views, while his literary executor, Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), wants him to sign away the rights to his catalog.
“Your works are the birthright of the Russian people,” Chertkov hisses. Yes, he’s a hisser – also a conniver, a sniveler, and a bemoaner. If there’s a complaint to be made about Hoffman’s otherwise large-hearted film, it is that Chertkov is treated too uncharitably: Everyone else is forgiven their foibles and gripes; why not the man who founded a commune of people, the Tolstoyans, devoted to putting Tolstoy’s ideals into action?
Young Bulgakov (James McAvoy) is one of those Tolstoyans, a nervous-nelly of one, eager to loudly declare his credentials as a vegetarian virgin. At the film’s beginning, Chertkov hand-selects Bulgakov to be the master’s new secretary: There’s a stunning shot in which Bulgakov, a moist-eyed dreamer en route to meet Tolstoy, looks skyward, as if he just might burst from gladness and good fortune.
Reality soon sets in, though, as Bulgakov comes to realize he’s a pawn of Sofya and Chertkov – both silkily try to enlist him as a spy – and that his hero, Tolstoy, is mere man, made of flesh and not at all keen to forgo the pleasures afforded said flesh.
Plummer, fully owning his 80 years, plays up Tolstoy’s lustiness; he and Mirren engage in some barnyard-inspired hanky-panky – he’s big rooster, she’s little chicken – that is no less than the silliest, sexiest spot of foreplay I’ve seen in ages.
These early scenes are a romping delight; Mirren, especially, is divine as a diva whiplashing from soft coo to acid tongue.
But as the schism between Tolstoy’s loved ones widens, Hoffman’s film stealthily deepens, the transition from playfulness to crepuscular contemplation eased by Sergey Yevtushenko’s accomplished score. The Last Station would have satisfied alone as a witty, manic lark, but as it moves toward the titular railway station, the film unfurls into so much more – a work of compassion, modulated mournfulness, and unchecked joy.