It is an artful maze.

The Last Station

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            When writer/director Michael Hoffman decided to tackle the expansive subject of Leo Tolstoy in "The Last Station," he had the great good sense to narrow the parameters. Instead of surrendering to the temptation to hit the high spots, Hoffman zeros in on 1910 when Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) and his wife Sofya (Helen Mirren) fell into a devastating argument that shattered their marriage after 48 years.

            By 1910 Sofya had borne 13 children and had copied War and Peace by hand six times, so when it came to discussions of the life decisions Tolstoy was considering, she felt entitled to be a strong voice in the process. With his major novels behind him, Tolstoy was moving toward the spiritual side of his life by embarking on a movement devoted to celibacy, communal property, anti-materialism, and social justice. "I hate what you've become," she cries. How much of this came from Tolstoy himself and how much from his disciple, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) is unclear. But Sofya, certain that Chertkov is manipulating her husband, makes him her enemy. "You are a genius," she tells her husband, "He (Chertkov) is a sycophant and a pervert."

            At Chertkov's behest, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) becomes Tolstoy's secretary. Chertkov wants the rights to all of Tolstoy's work to go to the public domain. Sofya, wants everything to stay within the family - "Count Generosity" is about to give away everything we own." We watch steaming arguments between husband and wife over whether Chertkov is engineering a new will - he is, of course. "You don't need a husband; you need a Greek chorus," he howls at her." When Tolstoy can stand no more of his wife's rage and accusations, he leaves with his daughter Sasha (Ann Marie Duff) on a railroad journey that ends at the last station.

            Helen Mirren sizzles as Sofya, a wife in every way a match for her brilliant husband. Christopher Plummer is wonderfully subtle in creating a Tolstoy who is thoroughly believable as an avatar of greatness. Together, they do a sublime scene that is awash in laughter and love that lifts them, for this moment, out of their anger. I can't think of other actors who could have made this scene what it is.

            Paul Giamatti's Chertkov is a grand manipulator, James McAvoy's Valentin a believable and idealistic disciple. A spirited Kerry Condon is the love interest who sees the man Valentin can become. Poor Valentin. The young man has been ordered by Chertkov to spy on Sofya and by Sofya to spy on Chertkov. It is an artful maze.

            "What I have done is leave earthly things behind to spend my last days in peace," Tolstoy says of his plan. Of his earthly things, his novels are his legacy. Of the peace he sought - I don't think so, not when the woman who loves you is the likes of Sofya.


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