A film about the final days of Russian author Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace, Anna Karenina) may sound like a bore to the average moviegoer, and indeed, The Last Station is admittedly a very bookish, Merchant-Ivory, costume-drama sort of film. But it's also utterly engrossing, superbly acted, and full of ideas about life and love that ring true and hit hauntingly close to home.
Directed by Michael Hoffman (The Emperor's Club), Station tells the story of Tolstoy's final year, but even though it's a film about the end of a life, it's certainly far from a tragic or even melancholy tale. But it's definitely dramatic. Rather than living out his final days in peace and quiet, Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), a worldwide celebrity and iconic figure, finds himself in the middle of vicious battles between warring factions within his own household. His wife Sofya (Helen Mirren) demands his loyalty to the family and maneuvers to make certain that his will provides plenty of financial security for the family. At odds with Sofya is Tolstoy's right-hand-man Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), the head of the worldwide Tolstoyan movement (a sort of utopian Christian anarchism). He wants Tolstoy to donate his estate to "the movement" (even the copyright of his books), to ensure the Tolstoyan legacy. Sofya wants her husband to honor his family, while Chertkov wants Tolstoy to honor his ideals.
Also in the mix is Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), a wide-eyed young devotee who joins a Tolstoyan commune and becomes Tolstoy's personal secretary—"planted" by Chertkov to spy on the conniving shenanigans of Sofya within the Tolstoy household. While a member of the commune (which, among other things, requires celibacy), Valentin meets a pretty girl, Masha (Kerry Condon), who tests his devotion to the ideals he so admires. This "young" relationship between Valentin and Masha provides a fresh, passionate, equally conflicted thematic complement to that of their older counterparts—Sofya and Leo Tolstoy. As the aging lovers work through very human, relational tensions, so too do the young couple. Part of the charm of this film is the multi-generational, timeless quality to what it says about love. Everyone will be able to recognize it.
But make no mistake: this film is chiefly about the turbulent relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Tolstoy. Plummer and Mirren are as good as it gets, hitting all the right notes of passion, pain, love, and laughter. They are believable as a couple married for nearly 50 years, full of all the tenderness and familiarity you would expect from a half-century partnership. And yet their characters are also different people—he a visionary intellectual, she a tempestuous, jealous lover. Plummer plays the brilliant Tolstoy with a sort of everyday grace—a lively, grandfatherly man unaware (mostly) of his larger-than-life celebrity. Mirren's Sofya is fiery and bipolar—a hyperemotional Russian woman prone to drama-queen ranting and raving. She loves Leo deeply and wants him for her own, but fears that his work, his ideas, and legacy are a higher priority for him. Rather than "her own," Tolstoy has become "the world's."
Based on the novel of the same name by Jay Parini, The Last Station is a film about the complex two-facedness of love; it's about the pain of loving someone so much that you don't want to share them, even if they have great things to offer the world. Sometimes our convictions, ideals, and work can become as or more important than our relationships; it's just a fact of life. Love gives us a lot. But does it always satisfy our pursuit of significance?
Delicately photographed, whimsically scored and patiently paced, Station doesn't rely on flash and panache to make its points. But the points do come across elegantly. The simultaneously playful and mournful tone of the film fits its subject matter well: the messy, difficult, but ultimately essential and joyful experience of love.
The Last Station tackles huge ideas that resonate deeply, but in a way that never feels didactic. It's an entertaining film, first and foremost. And yet it's all so true. All of us deal with this tension between wanting to love and be loved, but also wanting to make a difference in the world. Sometimes those desires are compatible and sometimes they are not. Relationships often fall victim in an individual's pursuit of significance. Does it have to be that way? I doubt it. But more often than not it's a truism of life: We can't have our cake and eat it too. There's only so much energy and will in any given life. Only so much time. Should it be focused on our love or work? It's a deep and unsettling question, and Station asks it daringly.
Station opens with a quote from Tolstoy's greatest novel, War & Peace: "Everything I know I know only because I love." And by the end of the film, at the train station where Tolstoy breathes his last (the "last station"), we recognize the profundity of that statement.
Even when love seems to be a nuisance or distraction from our "real purpose," the fact remains that everything we are—every great novel we write or philosophical movement we found—sprouts always from love in the first place.Discussion starters
- Do you think Tolstoy is justified in his leaving Sofya at the end of the film?
- How should we balance our commitment to love and family with our calling to make an impact in the world?
- Think about this quote in terms of each of the main characters: "Everything I know I know only because I love."
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Last Station is rated R for a scene of sexuality/nudity. It's a pretty clean film other than that one scene, featuring a few quick shots of nudity. There is also some domestic fighting and a lot of arguing amongst characters, but nothing too violent. It's an adult-themed movie that wouldn't appeal to children anyway, but perhaps to older, mature teens and up.
Photos © Sony Pictures Classics
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