by Richard von Busack
ONE SEEKS the truth; one cherishes idealism. And yet truth and idealism make uncomfortable bedfellows. The problem of Leo Tolstoy’s end is scoped out in Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station, based on Jay Parini’s 1990 novel. It’s an interesting, very well cast, visually pleasant yet strangely toneless film about two sets of lovers who find idealism coming between them.
Around 1910 in Moscow, Valentin (James McAvoy, once again playing a callow young person out of his depth) is recruited by one Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). Chertkov is the head of the Tolstoy society, dedicated to carrying out the author’s reformist ideas regarding celibacy and manual labor. Valentin’s job will be to live on Tolstoy’s commune, carry a notebook and record the great man’s thoughts.
Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), the most famous writer on earth, is enjoying a sort of Indian summer, watching his minifarm bloom and receiving the adulation of the world. But the count’s countess—Sofya, his wife of nearly 50 years, played by Helen Mirren—has tired of her husband’s utopian politics.
As the mother of more than a dozen children, she is terrified at the old man’s desire to give all his possessions away. Chertkov, very much the curly-mustached, perfumed parlor snake, is engineering a deal to put War and Peace in the public domain so that the suffering world may have it for free. Meanwhile, Valentin’s desire to stay pure and virginal is sorely tested by a saucy, experienced woman on the commune, Masha (Kerry Condon).
Outfitted with the requisite beard, the Oscar-nominated Plummer plays Tolstoy with the gusto of a ham-loving actor tackling Fiddler on the Roof. Plummer has a particularly moving scene describing his long-ago courtship with his wife, and there are juicy scenes of the old couple going after one another in bed and out of bed: a theatrical ruckus. Alas, what wife can bear hearing her husband described as a saint, a new Jesus?
Sofya gets up from a summer picnic table after one of Tolstoy’s devotees hauls out a new invention: Tolstoy’s voice barks from the brazen horn of a Victrola. Cameramen—paparazzi before there was such a thing—watch the spatting between the Tolstoys and record it all for posterity.
This view of Tolstoy, emphasizing the naive sweetness and the common-man heartiness, produces affection but doesn’t fathom the deeper meanings of this story. Hearing of Tolstoy’s renunciation and its consequences, one thinks of King Lear. And one wouldn’t be the first, either. George Orwell wrote a famous essay comparing Tolstoy’s hatred of King Lear to Tolstoy’s Lear-like folly in divesting himself of his property before he actually died.
Orwell’s point—that some forms of sacrifice disguise a covert power play—eludes Hoffman. He gives us Tolstoy as a cracked, principled old grandfather, manipulated by outsiders. We also don’t get any sense of why a sensitive man would want his hands clean in Russia of the day: we hear that the filthy peasants are out there being filthy, but we don’t see them in their muck or understand who buried them there. The Last Station’s charming greenery and white birches could be ornamenting some exceptionally gilded-by-hindsight memoir: Speak, Memory, maybe.
THE LAST STATION (R; 112 min.), directed and written by Michael Hoffman, based on the novel by Jay Parini, photographed by written by Sebastian Edschmid and starring Christopher Plummer and James McAvoy, opens Feb. 5 at Camera 7 in Campbell and the Guild in Menlo Park. (Follow Richard’s reviews at Movietimes.com)