Most Americans know Leo Tolstoy only by his most famous books – the lengthy novels “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.” But Tolstoy achieved a far greater fame in his native Russia for the philosophy he espoused in his later years. A forerunner of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., he spoke on behalf of the oppressed, common peasants of Russia, and urged a major upheaval of the country’s socio-economic system through passive resistance. However, like a contemporary, well-meaning rock star, he did his proselytizing from the comfort of his own mansion, against the backdrop of an almost paparazzi-like international news crew which followed his every move.
The new movie “The Last Station” recounts this period of the great writer’s life. Centered around the character Valentin Bulgakov – an earnest and naive idealist who goes to work as Tolstoy’s personal secretary, the film explores the multiple conflicts of Tolstoy’s last year.
Leo’s wife Sofya – who not only bore him 13 children, but also transcribed the working manuscript of “War and Peace” six times – worries that her husband’s followers are more interested in his royalty checks than in him. Leo’s dear friend Vladimir Chertkov, meanwhile, insists he wants Tolstoy to change his will not because he wants to disinherit Sofya, but to ensure that the great writer’s books will always “belong to the people of Russia.”
Both Sofya and Vladimir give Valentin a blank book, and ask him to spy on Tolstoy for them. Caught in the middle, Valentin’s affections are torn, until he falls for Masha, a comely Muscovite who is working on the collective farm housed on Tolstoy’s estate, which is (supposedly) governed by the principles of Leo’s teachings.
Academy Award winning actress Helen Mirren give another stellar performance as Sofya, exploring her character’s multifaceted personality traits – charm, pathos, histrionics and tender affection for her husband of 48 years. Christopher Plummer gives an equally memorable turn as the novelist – a humble man who can’t quite make sense of his fame, his idealistic followers, his neurotic wife, or his own conflicting passions. Like any author, he usually wants nothing more than a quiet place in which to collect his thoughts and write, but nobody seems willing to treat him like a common scribbler anymore.
Paul Giamatti does a dashing job as the two-faced Chertkov, a character as slippery as the wax that practically drips from his handlebar mustache. James McAvoy is charming (and as cute as a button!) as the kind-hearted Valentin. And Kerry Condon, looking like a young Vanessa Redgrave, steals every scene in which she appears as the character Masha.
“The Last Station” played the art-house theatre circuit at the beginning of this year, but has just been distributed in wide release in anticipation of this weekend’s Oscar show. All lovers of literature, history, and fantastic acting will find something to their liking in this film. As for the more common peasants amongst us – well, what better way to fill the hole left by the conclusion of the recent Winter Olympics than to sit in a dark movie theatre and watch some serious Russian snow!