I confess to not having read a proper biography of Leo Tolstoy. My conception of Tolstoy the man is based, unfortunately, on the relevant chapter of Paul Johnson’s notorious Intellectuals. If you haven’t come across this book, it’s a series of case studies (or hatchet jobs) advancing the thesis that modernity’s most cherished utopians were all monumental hypocrites and egotistical bullies in their personal lives. Johnson’s Tolstoy is one of the more extreme megalomaniacs of the bunch. A callous womaniser and uncontrollable gambler in his youth, he later develops a full blown messiah complex, abuses and betrays his most loyal friends, and reviles women as a class, seeing them as temptresses and hysterics. Unsurprisingly he does not not love his wife Sofya, whom he submits to unrelenting psychological cruelty.
I don’t know how accurate this version is, but Johnson himself asserts that these two are about as well documented as any nineteenth century lives, so presumably he stands by it.
Michael Hoffman’s film The Last Station offers a vastly more sympathetic picture of the writer. Based on a book (which I haven’t read) of the same name by Jay Panini, it treats the last months of the writer’s life, seen through the eyes of his adoring secretary Valentin (James McAvoy), an intense young chap whose endearing (though not to everyone) idiosyncracy is sneezing when he’s nervous, which is most of the time. Hoffman’s Tolstoy is a difficult character to be sure, mired in frustration and prone to tantrums; but under the surface there’s a kindliness and an ironic humour that can’t be reconciled with Johnson’s self-absorbed ogre. He is basically a victim of his own success, by all means impractical and gullible, but by no means a born tyrant.
It’s hard to imagine that the film’s portrayal of Tolstoy is faithful to Panini’s book which, even if it is a ‘novel’, is based on the same material that was available to Johnson. Indeed, it turns out that Panini, while happy with the film overall, watched with consternation as important material was progressively ditched from the screenplay due to limits on screen time and money. He also admits that that Plummer ‘offers a kind of warmth to the character that (in truth) Tolstoy did not possess.’
Setting aside the question of accuracy, is it a good film on its merits? Yes, but not quite great.
The cinematography, music and acting are worth the price of the ticket. Hoffman convincingly recreates a shimmering summer in the Russian countryside, and the busy, chaotic life of a country house at the twilight of the monarchy. The beautiful soundtrack by Sergey Yevtushenko (who also scored Russian Ark) evokes the time and mood to perfection.
Then there are the performances of two of my favorite actors, Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer (I’m thinking more of Atahualpa than Captain Von Trapp), both of whom got Oscar nominations. This pair succeed in bringing to life two extraordinary characters, and it’s incidental that the characters happen to be elderly. I endorse Claudia Puig’s assessment of Mirren:
Every second Helen Mirren is on-screen in The Last Station is a study in peerless talent… As Countess Sofya Tolstoy, Mirren is imperious, warm, sardonic and histrionic – each state portrayed equally convincingly.
One minute she’s throwing herself in the lake, the next minute making travel plans, and soon after that grovelling in contrition. Some credit must go to Hoffman too — he wrote the script as well as directed — for getting this concoction right.
Given these ingredients, I would have happily accepted the fictional aspects if the story had worked perfectly on its own terms. Unfortunately it didn’t quite. The culprit is not really time and money but the irresistible Hollywoodization of cinema, which demands a villain and demands suspense.
The problem for me was the portrayal of Vladimir Chertkov (played by Paul Giamatti) and the depiction of the communal farm. Sandra Hall was convinced that Chertkov was ‘an irredeemable fanatic’, but to me he came across from the start as a conman and manipulator, and it stretched credulity that Tolstoy, his daughter Sasha and the family doctor should all be in his thrall. The Count, though suffering from an excess of idealism and perhaps a mild dose of messiah syndrome, is by no means demented or blinded by his metaphysical delusions. The others are decent people, devoted to Tolstoy. So why can’t they see what’s obvious to us, Sofya and, increasingly, Valentin — that Chertkov is taking them all for a ride?
As for the kibbutz-like farm, part of Tolstoy’s humanitarian experiment, we’re instructed from the outset that it’s based on a hopelessly flawed ideology and run by a creepy misfit. We discover that, for reasons left unexplained, celibacy is a key component of the creed. This is meant to be self evidently preposterous, and poor old Valentin’s resolve dissolves literally within minutes of his arrival, at the hands of the delightful Masha. But the prophet himself, that master of observation, is oblivious to these glaring problems though they are readily apparent to the audience. And this is not because Tolstoy is a one-eyed, romantic dreamer — he candidly admits he isn’t very Tolstoyan.
What the film needed, to aid credibility, was more background on the Tolstoyan movement and its ideals, so we could see why Tolstoy’s nearest and dearest were prepared to hand his estate over on a platter, against the emphatic protests of his wife. Rather than a transparently self-seeking publisher, Chertkov should have been drawn as a genuine intellectual partner of Tolstoy. In fact, late in the peace Valentin accuses him of being motivated by self-glorification; but this would have made much more sense if Chertkov had appeared at the outset as a genuine idealist, a man whose personal ambitions were hidden from view — even from himself. We would have had a more interesting collision of values rather than what we in fact got — a kind of thriller, with Sofya thrown into a desperate race to prevent her family being swindled.
This is only a middle-sized complaint. The central relationship wouldn’t have been played and developed any better if the crisis dividing the couple had been developed more plausibly.