The Last Station

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Posted January 14, 2010 in Film

First: Imagine Tolstoy. Not Leo, his wife Sofia. At 19, she married a promising writer nearly twice her age. She bore him 13 children, eight of whom survived, and still found the time to recopy his War and Peace by hand six times. But just when the very bright woman settled into the delights of a large family, a large estate and a grand romance with one of the greatest novelists in history, her Leo snapped. Suddenly, he was an anti-material monk, an ascetic who preached celibacy, vegetarianism, political resistance and poverty. The soft comforts of their life were shunned, at least half-heartedly. He didn’t give up their estate but he did invite his followers to move in, a host of idealists, flatterers and kooks that Sofia saw as a pestilence. In turn, they saw her as a threat—especially when she became publicly furious at his pledge to leave all of his money to the movement. The Tolstoys were the Soviet turn-of-the-century Brangelina. Everyone scribbled about their squabbles, especially Leo and Sofia, in diaries still sold in bookstores. Novelist Jay Parini thought to combine their diaries with comrades like political leader Vladimir Chertkov and naive secretary Valentin Bulgakov in a multi-angled portrait that reads like Rashomon for a marriage. And this film, adapted and directed by Michael Hoffman, stages it with whimsy that turns into pathos. As Bulgakov, who here serves as our most trusted eyes and ears, James McAvoy is charming, awkward and slowly soured on seeing Leo (Christopher Plummer, imperious) as a living saint. His acolyte’s maturation is the film’s anchor, even if he’s wholly focused on spying on the couple for Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). While their tabloids and our history books haven’t been sympathetic to the stubborn Sofia, Hoffman’s stacked the deck in her favor by casting the divine Helen Mirren. She captures her pride, intelligence, temper and vulnerability, navigating the mishmash of emotions far better than the film surrounding her, which tends to veer from froth to tragedy. Though the cast is fantastic, this won’t be the definitive take of the Tolstoys’ marriage—but whose could ever be? 

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