Leo Tolstoy is much more than simply the mirror of the Russian Revolution. In Michael Hoffman’s “The Last Station,” the great author, played by Christopher Plummer, is portrayed as the object of controversy, affection, gossip, admiration and inspiration during the tumultuous days leading up to his death. Set in 1910, the movie depicts Tolstoy set apart from the turmoil of the political scene of Tsarist Russia.
The movie, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Jay Parini, presents the author primarily from the point of his young secretary Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), an enthusiastic Tolstoyan who deeply admires the author. Valentin is endearingly insecure at the beginning of the movie and follows the misinterpreted rules of the Christian Anarchist movement closely but becomes representative of a reflective, peaceful and sincere interpretation of Tolstoy’s political and ideological views by the end of the film. Valentin is sent to be Tolstoy’s secretary by Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), the author’s disciple and the main proponent of the Tolstoyan propaganda.
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Chertkov, who deeply admires the ideas of Tolstoy, adheres to them much more than the author himself ever has. He wants Tolstoy to die renouncing the church’s establishment and the bourgeois society, becoming the human embodiment of their movement’s ideology. But although Chertkov’s ideas, primarily about the socialization of Tolstoy’s work, are neither exaggerated nor against the author’s ideals, he is presented in such a negative light that they seem unreasonable — modern American cinema often condemns anything that even slightly resembles Communism. Perhaps the only disappointing aspect of the film is that the close friendship between Tolstoy and Chertkov is not portrayed in a believable way.
At the end of his life, the author is the center of much primarily unwanted attention from his close friends and family, as well as the Russian public and Chertkov exacerbates this. It is with the beautifully portrayed Sofya, Tolstoy’s wife (Helen Mirren), that Chertkov comes into direct conflict that escalates to an unbearable extent for the physically weak author. Eventually, it gets so bad that Tolstoy leaves his home before his death looking for a solitary and peaceful end. But Sofya and Tolstoy have an entertaining relationship throughout — they’re intellectual equals whose many ideological and financial collisions are overpowered by their love for each other. It is evident that the dynamic of the couple was once productive and creative, but at the time of the movie’s events Tolstoy has become too old to effectively handle the tensions while Sofya can no longer control the intensity with which she expresses her many strong opinions.
The story of Tolstoy’s last days and the many severe conflicts between family and ideology, desire and physical inability, egalitarianism and sociopolitical norms, feudal Russia and anarchist communes, is paralleled to that of Valentin’s gradual understanding of romantic love, underlining Tolstoy’s own belief in the overwhelming power of love in the world: “All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love.”
The movie is overall fun to watch and presents the inherently interesting and intriguing end of Tolstoy with sensibility and humor. Plus, Plummer is a delight to watch and eerily resembles the great author.