Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station depicts the final months of nineteenth-century Russian writer and pacifist Leo Tolstoy’s (Christopher Plummer) life. Adapted from Jay Parini’s biographical novel, the film begins in 1910 when young writer and dedicated Tolstoyan, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), is hired as Tolstoy’s personal secretary. Arriving at the estate, Valentin is forced to negotiate an impasse between Tolstoy’s hysterical yet charming wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren), and the sneaky Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), fanatical leader of the Tolstoyan Movement.
At the core of the film is the relationship between Tolstoy and Sofya. While followers, led by Chertkov, want Tolstoy to relinquish copyright of his books to the people of Russia, Sofya is more concerned with his familial obligations – and their shared past. There is hilarity to the portrayal of the couple’s tumultuous relationship, and poignancy, too, as they struggle to relate to one another after almost fifty years of marriage. Historical side-notes, such as Sofya’s influence on Tolstoy’s editing process (she transcribed War and Peace six times!) provide insight into the famous couple.
Acting from the three mains, Mirren, Plummer and McAvoy, is outstanding – particularly Mirren, who drives the film as the infuriating but ultimately sympathetic Sofya. The ‘hysterical’ woman stereotype does get a bit tiresome, though, with an angry Tolstoy yelling, ‘You don’t need a husband, you need a Greek chorus’. But Sofya is the ultimate diva: she simulates a heart attack, half-heartedly attempts suicide and declares that she will throw herself in front of a train – just like Anna Karenina. However, it’s clear Hoffman’s empathy lies with Sofya and her zest for life, which contrasts so starkly with the stifling Tolstoyan ideology upheld by Chertkov.
The Last Station balances carefully between high, theatrical comedy and deep pathos as it explores how to live and, ultimately, how to love. Tolstoy’s own struggles to follow the ideologies of his movement provide a humanistic depiction of the legendary writer, whose politics saw him transformed into a Christ-like figure by his followers – a view Sofya mocks.
The film is visually gorgeous: Sebastian Edschmid’s cinematography captivates; it is a picturesque illustration of the Russian countryside. Monica Jacobs’ costume design is lush and meticulous in its historical accuracy.
While The Last Station does discuss the Tolstoyan Movement and its basic principles – including a denouncement of physical love and wealth, and promoting non-violent resistance – it could have benefited from a more detailed account of the specifics of Tolstoy’s ideologies and why they conflicted with Sofya’s. These important details were often skimmed over, to the detriment of a more nuanced account of the writer and his relationship with his wife.
Archival footage included in the closing credits provides a perfect end to an emotive and moving film celebrating the life, love and achievements of one of the world’s greatest writers.
January Jones is completing a Masters of English at The University of Melbourne.