The Last Station

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.

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Nabakov
Nabakov
11 years ago

Well Jim you talked me into watching “The Last Station”.

The problem with all great artists is that they aren’t always nice people. On the other hand, it’s hard to think of any great artist that was a genuinely and totally nasty person without any irredeemable features.

I think that in Leo’s case he was a brilliant yet emotional autocrat – a total drama queen- living through a time where he could just smell as an artist and dreamer a better future for his beloved Russia but also sense a coming anarchy that would fuck up his children’s future.

Truly great artists like Leo have both very sensitive antenna and egos. And if you’re attuned enough to feel the ground slipping beneath your feet just as you think you’ve worked it out, well then I bet your immediate family and friends wouldn’t have enjoyed your company either at such times.

But fuck it, I’d watch pretty much anything with Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer.

Speaking of which, Sergei Bondarchuk’s “Waterloo” is still a jaw dropping epic movie. Not least because it heavily borrowed a fatalistic brooding Tolstoyina sensibility, had most of the USSR army able to ride a horse partaking in breathtaking cavalry charges, Rod Steiger doing a pretty good brooding vengeful but always second-guessing himself Boney and Christopher Plummer as the definitive screen Arthur Wellesley.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
11 years ago

Thanks for the review James.

I think I rate the film similarly but had a different reaction to some of the details. There’s no doubt that Helen Mirren is a marvellous actor. I loved her in The Queen But I thought she was miscast. There is something irredeemably British and middle class about her – and about her performance here (I’m not using those expressions in a sneering way, just trying to be descriptive). I don’t think of Sofya as like that at all. Mirren had all the right ingredients, but she just radiates the wrong culture. The wrong body language if you like. So I couldn’t really come at her.

I quite liked Christopher Plummer (I also liked him as Captain Von Trapp I have to admit), and I quite liked the his portrait of Tolstoy, but that is to say that I liked what was presented, but not that I thought it was accurate. Though I’ve read a bit by Tolstoy and about him (a long time ago) I don’t know enough about Tolstoy to know if the presentation was accurate. But what I do know of Tolstoy – from reading some stuff about him and his own ‘Confession’ struck me as a lot more passionate and uncompromising than Plummer’s Tolstoy was.

The basic story of Tolstoy, racked with both ardour for his wife, and recriminations against himself for his carnal ways and indeed the final episode in his life as depicted in the film don’t really seem like the acts of the ironic fellow who didn’t take himself too seriously as presented by Plummer. They strike me as pretty desperate acts of a person who was unlikely to be too easily ironical about his own life.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
11 years ago

“The problem with all great artists is that they aren’t always nice people. On the other hand, it’s hard to think of any great artist that was a genuinely and totally nasty person without any irredeemable features.”

I’m no expert, but always thought that Wagner was a candidate for this gong?

Nabakov
Nabakov
11 years ago

“…but always thought that Wagner was a candidate for this gong?”

Well him, Rilke, Celine, Waugh and Chuck Berry. But I think you’ll find they were all kind to small children and domestic animals. Well OK, maybe not Rilke or Berry.

Nabakov
Nabakov
11 years ago

And of course there’s Ezra Pound – by all accounts a titanic prick – but one hell of a poet.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
11 years ago

Hitler was too – which I take it is perhaps your point.

I guess you could call Hitler an artist of a kind. Not much chop on small canvasses but something of a performance artist when it came to upping the “No more Mr Nice Guy” stakes.

Nabakov
Nabakov
11 years ago

“I quite liked Christopher Plummer ”

See him playing Wellington in “Waterloo”. I can’t see the Iron Duke being played any other way now – especially the scene when he realizes he has no option left but to slaughter the remains of the Old Guard (“Merde!”)with massed cannon. Just like the real Wellington, he weeped but gave the order.

Also Plummer’s absolutely superb as the voice of the crazed old airship explorer, surrounded by talking dogs with wine lists and menus (“Oh, surprise me.”) in Pixar’s ‘Big’.

As he was in “Inside Man”.

Paul Martin
11 years ago

Thanks for the link, James, but could you replace it with this:
http://melbfilmblog.blogspot.com/2010/03/last-station.html
The link you’ve provided is really a tag that includes all my posts on ‘Russia’.

As I mention in my post, I have a lot of problems with the film, and not just McAvoy (I haven’t liked any of his performances at all). I do like Plummer and Mirren – heck, Prime Suspect parts 1-3 have got to be some of the best telemovies ever. But they both seem so mis-cast in the film. Or maybe it’s the way they’re directed, because the film feels completely British (ie, staid) in its sensibilities, an element I found totally boring. The film needs more passion, more oomph. The only character with oomph is Kerry Condon’s spunky rendition of Masha.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
11 years ago

Thanks Paul,

I’m glad it looks like we agree. I know what you mean about ‘staid’.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
11 years ago

PS, I also don’t know how James McAvoy gets all those gigs.