Saturday, November 20, 2010

THE LAST STATION (2009): Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy was possibly the greatest writer that ever lived.  Though mostly remembered for his long (and exceedingly readable) novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, he also wrote a number of spectacular shorter works of fiction such as The Cossacks, The Death of Ivan Ilych, Master and Man, Father Sergius, and Hadji Murad.  Even the religious essays such as A Confession or The Kingdom of God is Within You were heartfelt if not always the most solid philosophy.  Tolstoy married his wife, Sofya, when he was thirty-four years old, and he remained married to her for forty-eight years.  Apparently, the first fifteen years of marriage were quite happy.  The next thirty years were marred by quarrels and misunderstandings that in the end resulted in Tolstoy fleeing from his estate and dying in the train station at Astapova Junction.  Sofya arrived at the station, but was prevented from seeing the dying man by Tolstoy’s demented followers until Tolstoy lapsed into unconsciousness and was no longer able to converse.

The Last Station, directed by Michael Hoffman, is a film about Tolstoy’s last days as told by Valentin (James McAvoy) with Tolstoy played by Christopher Plummer and Sofya played by Helen Mirren.  Chief among the “Tolstoyans,” who do all they can to put a wedge in the relationship of Tolstoy and his wife, is Chertkov (Paul Giamatti).  Chertkov believes in the teachings of Tolstoy to such a degree that he is even willing to chastise his great master for sometimes straying from Tolstoy’s own teachings.  Valentin is hired on as a private secretary for Tolstoy and is instructed by Chertkov to also report on the comings and goings of Sofya.  Chertkov wants the royalties from Tolstoy’s works to be distributed among his followers so that they can then presumably assist the world’s poor.  Sofya quite understandably wants the estate preserved and to be passed onto her nine surviving children.  Anyway, Valentin quickly tires of the spying, defies Chertkov’s wishes, and instead becomes a close confident to both Tolstoy and his wife.  Chertkov wins a temporary victory by having Tolstoy sign a will that grants Chertkov all control over Tolstoy’s copyrighted material.  This happening causes Sofya such rage that she creates a scene, and this gives Tolstoy and his favorite daughter, Sasha (Anne-Marie Duff), the excuse for fleeing the estate.  So Tolstoy dies in a train station away from the home that he had lived at his entire life and only has a moment of consciousness where he glimpses Sofya for the last time.

The Last Station is at least respectful to the memories of the two main characters.  If anything, the film is guilty of overly-romanticizing the relationship of Tolstoy and his wife.  The real Tolstoy probably was not always so self-aware of his own hypocritical tendencies when it came to his teachings.  Also, Sofya after delivering thirteen children was not the voluptuous temptress as portrayed by Helen Mirren.  As intelligent and talented as Sofya was, she also exhibited a number of manic attributes that would have driven more patient men than her own husband into exile.  Still, the real life Valentin apparently did adore the couple and so their portrayal in the movie was probably not so far removed from his own description of them.  And no doubt Chertkov was as bad if not worse as portrayed by Paul Giamatti.  The film is somewhat sidetracked by the only major character to appear that was completely fictional.  There was no Masha (Kerry Condon), the Tolstoyan loyal to the spirit of the law if not always the letter of the law of her teacher, that seduced the young Valentin and who taught the young man what real love was.  This side plot was a movie gimmick used in many inferior films and does little to enhance The Last Station.  That’s not to say that Condon is not beautiful or fails to play her part well.  Her appearance just adds nothing concerning what we really care about.  The Last Station succeeds due to the acting talents of Plummer and Mirren.  Because the two characters do seem real, we forget that the film borders on melodrama.

Tolstoy was a great man with great flaws, and The Last Station only somewhat demonstrates the flawed side of his personality.  Unfortunately, The Last Station leaves the impression that Tolstoy was only a painter of passionate love stories and little more.  The movie begins by quoting Tolstoy when he says: “All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love.”  Yet when Tolstoy said this line, he was referring to so much more than romantic love or love between a man and his children.  Tolstoy is as well referring to that kind of spiritual love that resulted in his being excommunicated from the Russian church and exiled for many years to his estate - in part because the Russian government dare not execute the world renowned writer.  Especially in his later years, Tolstoy could be an angry, cynical and somewhat embittered writer.  He preached non-violence, the abolition of private property, and celibacy – though he didn’t always practice these things.  He wasn’t always particularly lovable and in the end only his daughter Sasha sided with him among his children when he engaged in a quarrel with their mother.  Even the peasants, that he so claimed to admire, mocked him behind his back when he would deliver to them his lectures about abstaining from alcohol or tobacco.  Nietzsche labeled Tolstoy as a pessimist for seeing only baseness rather than the potentiality of greatness in passionate men.  D.H. Lawrence felt that Tolstoy was so much like other Russian writers that would exhibit great pride and then repent of boasting by burrowing their noses into the feet of Jesus.  Both of these perceptive writers were probably correct about Tolstoy the Thinker, only somewhat correct about Tolstoy the Man, but what they said does not at all apply to Tolstoy the Artist.  Tolstoy was a soldier, lover, adulterer, gambler, pacifist, anarchist, misanthrope, misogynist, teacher, preacher moralist and great writer.  He was many (and sometimes contradictory) things and left none of his life experience out of his writings. 

I’ve read many reviews stating that this 112 minute film would revive interest in the works of Tolstoy.  If only that were true.  The typical viewer of this film would not know what to make of the enigma of Tolstoy’s writings.  It isn’t that the writings would be too difficult to comprehend.  Intellectually speaking, Tolstoy is probably the easiest to read of all great authors.  Emotionally, he is much more of a challenge.  Tolstoy created such complete and authentic characters that we care very much for what will happen to them in the end.  Sadly, like Anna Karenina, many real people end up throwing themselves under the train.  Tolstoy himself ended dying in an unknown place surrounded mostly by sycophants and fleeing from the most important person in his life.  The Last Station  tells a moving story and contains wonderful acting.  It just omits some important details.

April 14, 2010
© Robert S. Miller 2010

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