Literary lion in winter
“Everything I know, I know only because I love.” This epigraph from Leo Tolstoy’sWar and Peace begins The Last Station and shapes its mood. Others have expressed a similar sentiment— pretty much every other tunesmith and storyteller since man first began to write and sing of the tender passion. But when Tolstoy talks, people listen.
Tolstoy was, and remains, a literary superstar. This movie is set in the last year of his long life, 1910, when the novelist was 82 and surrounded by acolytes and paparazzi. If Christopher Plummer’s rendition of him is accurate, he was a vigorous, lusty 82, riding horseback, making love, and still hard at work on his writing. But, of course, it doesn’t really matter whether Plummer is history’s Tolstoy or not. Michael Hoffman’s movie is about ideas, specifically the principles of Tolstoyan philosophy. They encompass pacifism, vegetarianism, egalitarianism, spiritualism, and celibacy. Hoffman doesn’t mind so much about the others, but he comes down foursquare against celibacy, and he has a soft spot for private property as well.
Our entry into Tolstoy’s world is through a young disciple of Tolstoyism, Valentin Bulgakov ( James McAvoy). Valentin is recruited by Tolstoy’s close friend and ideologue, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), to serve as the writer’s secretary The Last Station, Tolstoy bio, rated R, Regal DeVargas, 3 chiles
and as Chertkov’s spy within the household. “Write everything down,” he commands the young man, handing him a notebook (everybody here scribbles in diaries, recording historical nuggets for posterity). Chertkov particularly wants to know everything that passes between Tolstoy and his wife, the Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren), who has peculiar ideas that are at loggerheads with the Tolstoyan principles Chertkov is eager to preserve. Specifically, she wants her husband’s love, his allegiance, and his property. Tolstoy, being a Tolstoyan, wants to give away the store. And Chertkov, a prototypical communist zealot who is more Tolstoyan than Tolstoy, wants to make damn sure he does it.
At issue are the rights to Tolstoy’s literary legacy. Chertkov believes that they belong to the Russian people, with himself as administrator. Sofya thinks they belong to the family— and having borne her husband 13 children and copied out War and Peace by hand six times, she has earned her standing in the fight.
En route to the great man’s estate, Valentin stops at Telyatinki, Tolstoy’s summer commune, where it doesn’t take long for the first of his Tolstoyan principles to bite the dust. There he meets Masha (Kerry Condon), also a disciple, but apparently not a very good one. A modern, independent, cigarette-smoking woman, she swings an ax with skill and climbs into Valentin’s bed with gusto, and the walls of celibacy come tumbling down.
But the real romance of this movie is the Tolstoys’ passionate relationship. It’s a tender, brawling, sensual, intellectual, sparring, warring, knock-down-drag-out of a love affair that has survived almost half a century and is still going strong, if not smoothly. As played by Mirren and Plummer, this is a marriage in the same dramatic tradition as the one Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole portrayed in The Lion inWinter, a battle royal between two people whose passionate love for each other is matched only by a fierce advocacy of their own agendas. Mirren gives us a Sofya who has lost nothing in sensuality and desire, and a woman who gives no ground in battling for what she believes is legitimately hers. She’s an unabashed romantic and an unapologetic aristocrat.
Plummer’s Tolstoy is a giant bemusedly living within his legend as he nears his end, a man who stands for more things than he can comfortably encompass. He believes in the tenets of the worldwide movement that has sprung up in his name, some of which would eventually influence the nonviolent philosophies of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. But as he admits to Valentin, especially when it comes to sex, “I’m not a very good Tolstoyan.”
The triangle in the Tolstoys’ relationship is completed by the calculating Chertkov, who is focused like an ideological laser on obtaining the copyrights to the great man’s literary legacy. Sofya keeps demanding to see the new will, Tolstoy and Chertkov deny that any such thing exists, and finally it is signed in a ceremony in the middle of the woods that looks like an execution and feels like one. Tolstoy is committed to the principles he espouses, but he’s got a lifetime of devotion to Sofya as well, and the pressure of the conflict finally drives him from home and to the little train station at Astapovo that gives the film its title and its destination.
Some critics have derided the central performances as scenerychewing excess, but these Tolstoys are characters who demand histrionics, and Mirren and Plummer are magnificent in delivering on those demands. When the countess lies seductively in bed and coaxes her husband to crow like a cock, it’s an intimate, lusty, private moment that these two great actors deliver without a trace of self-consciousness or faint-hearted restraint.
Cured ham: Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren