The Last Station
Directed by Michael Hoffman
2009, R, 112 min.
How could we not love and learn from Christopher Plummer’s portrayal of the great Count Leo Tolstoy in his final months? He was “the most celebrated writer in the world,” as the movie reminds us. He was also the symbolic head of the Tolstoyan movement, which had no less a goal than to replace a world of vicious class oppression with one of freedom and love.
How could we not love Helen Mirren’s portrayal of Countess Sofya Andreyevna as she seduces, manipulates, bullies, and throws hissy-fits to maintain her own outlook and the station of nobility (in 1910, just seven years before the Russian Revolution, it was just about the “last station”) to which she feels entitled.
How could we not admire Paul Giamatti’s portrayal of weasely Vladimir Cherkov, staunchest defender of the Tolstoyan movement and its absolutely most wretched example? How could we not love and learn from the two young lovers trying to understand and conform to their high-minded intellectual philosophy while grasping and groping carnivorously together?
Gently, director Hoffman scrapes the glossy surfaces off a number of contradictions within the situation. For one, Tolstoy has made his reputation by denouncing wealth and privilege, while continuing to hold on to both. In the 1960s and 1970s, when young students in the U.S. daydreamed of an easy road to revolution, Tolstoy enjoyed a great popularity. He had written, among many other sweet things, about his experiences with an innovative school. Rather than forcing children through the meat-grinder of conformity, they were blessed with a supportive and free environment. He had a certain practical advantage over the baby boomer daydreamers, of course. He had great wealth. The school was on his own estate and all the children, and their parents, were his serfs.
The main contradiction explored in the film might be Tolstoy’s profession that love overshadows all else, while seeming to turn his back coldly on his family and his greatest love, the countess. Helen Mirren’s great acting shapes that point like a sharp spear that she drives through everything else, but the two young lovers reflect the same contradiction and make it real enough to die over. Mirren and Plummer both deserve their Academy Award nominations, but it is Mirren who has the more challenging role and carries it out beyond perfection!
A part of Tolstoy’s contradictions came from his renunciation of religion, while Countess Sofya traveled with a Russian Orthodox priest. The biggest contradiction, covered the least, had to do with whether or not the Tolstoyan movement actually had any chance of achieving its noble goals.
Neither Tolstoy, in life or death, nor Hoffman’s movie resolves any of these contradictions. Consequently, my movie buddy and I, still in the thrall of this wonderful emotional experience, began to wonder what Tolstoy’s contemporary, V.I. Lenin, might have had to say in 1910. It turned out to be in his Collected Works, Volume 16, page 353, “Tolstoy and the Proletarian Struggle,” dated December 13, 1910.
It begins, “Tolstoy’s indictment of the ruling classes was made with tremendous power and sincerity; with absolute clearness he laid bare the inner falsity of all those institutions by which modern society is maintained: the church, the law courts, militarism, “lawful” wedlock, bourgeois science. But his doctrine proved to be in complete contradiction to the life, work and struggle of the grave-digger of the modern social system, the proletariat [in other words, the working class].”
In other words, Tolstoy might be crowned king by the utopians and hippies, but he didn’t have much of a plan.
Lenin concludes, “The Russian people will secure their emancipation only when they realize that it is not from Tolstoy they must learn to win a better life, but from the class the significance of which Tolstoy did not understand, and which alone is capable of destroying the old world which Tolstoy hated. That class is the proletariat.”
Photo: Helen Mirren and James McAvoy in a scene from “The Last Station.” (www.sonyclassics.com/thelaststation/)