Well-played passion infuses ‘Last Station’

“You all think he’s Christ, don’t you?” asks Sofya Tolstoy (Helen Mirren) during a group outdoor lunch scene in Moscow, Russia. Her feisty attitude contrasts with her traditional, lace-embellished gown as she continues commenting about her husband: “Count Generosity here is about to give away everything we own.” The lunch group, including a young and devoted Tolstoy follower Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), lieutenant Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) and Leo Tolstoy himself (Christopher Plummer), had been marveling over the tenets of Tolstoyan philosophy. Sofya’s enraged interjection is one of many she makes during Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station (2009). The film chronicles the humorous and emotional tension between Chertkov’s desire for Tolstoy’s work to benefit the public at large and Sofya’s fight to keep Tolstoy’s earnings to benefit his family.

Chertkov sends Bulgakov to Tolstoy’s home to “write it all down.” Chertkov wants hard evidence against Sofya, Tolstoy’s neglected wife, in his quest to get Tolstoy to sign away his work. Later, Sofya, too, gives Bulgakov a diary and tells him to spy on her opposition. Bulgakov, though, is a devoted Tolstoyan. “I have become so eager to perfect my soul,” he explains to Chertkov, noting that in addition to admiring Tolstoy’s work, he also despises sexual relations and is a strict vegetarian – qualities that the film presents as hallmarks of Tolstoyan doctrine. His wide-eyed admiration of Tolstoy both frames the film – we see the bearded, round-bellied Tolstoy through Bulgakov’s eyes – and complicates his relationship with Sofya. Bulgakov realizes that underlying the couple’s habits, from Sofya’s verbal insults to the flights Tolstoy makes to his commune just to seek tear-jerking laughter, is a love over four decades old. His realization lands him in between the two arguing sides.

But Bulgakov is just one of many people watching and recording the Tolstoys. Photographers constantly swarm their home. Everyone seems to be keeping a diary. When tensions rise, various journalists appear to ask questions as people flock in and out of the house. The result is a constant scratching of pencils onto pads, a sound that cleverly reminds the viewer of ever-present documentation, public scrutiny and of course, Tolstoy’s career as a writer. Sofya hates the attention. She ignores the cries of “Countess! Countess!” from prying journalists stationed outside of her home and agonizes over headlines about her family in the newspapers. The public has an insatiable appetite for Tolstoy and his family drama. Even Bulgakov’s job as a spy disguised as a secretary testifies to that interest.

Though Tolstoy has many faithful disciples, he repeatedly admits, “I’m not a good Tolstoyan myself.” Bulgakov sneezes with nervousness as Tolstoy reminisces about past lovers laughing while he deftly pinches a mosquito to death when it lands on Bulgakov’s cheek. Tolstoy often shrugs off the philosophy Bulgakov admires. The difference in practices between the two men reveals that Tolstoy knows he cannot live up to the standards he sets: Though his followers often compare him to Christ, Tolstoy recognizes his imperfections. However, lost characters like Bulgakov latch onto his teachings, substituting them for a life of genuine interactions with other people.

Bulgakov’s resistance to love lands him in the arms of Masha (Kerry Condon), a fellow resident at Tolstoy’s commune. Masha inspires the once-rigid Bulgakov to break his “rules,” while her struggle lies in acting not only for herself, but for Bulgakov’s interests as well. Their budding relationship makes the film as much a coming-of-age piece as it is a battle between public perceptions and private habits. What results is an experience about emotions from the heart, which create complicated relationships that cannot be rationalized by the doctrines of a single mortal man.

The Last Station begins and ends with brief factual information about Tolstoy’s life, providing accessibility to viewers who have no knowledge of the writer. However, the Tolstoyan doctrine is not fleshed out beyond a few basic beliefs, including abstinence from sexual activity, commitment to vegetarianism or veganism, hatred of material possessions and pacifism. Perhaps the film could have elaborated upon the political atmosphere of Russia during the early 20th century as well, so we could better understand why people readily embraced the Tolstoyan doctrine. On the other hand, the filmmakers may not have considered politics as integral to the film as its intimate relationships. And the actors’ convincing performances, especially Mirren’s explosive Sofya, create a film where love’s messiness reveals its beauty.

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