Lit­er­ary lion in win­ter

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“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

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