Monday, October 11, 2010

The Last Station (2009)

 Leo Tolstoy: Despite good cause for it, I have never stopped loving you.
Sofya Tolstaya
: Of course.
Leo Tolstoy
: But God knows you don't make it easy!
Sofya Tolstaya
: Why should it be easy? I am the work of your life, you are the work of mine. That's what love is!
~The Last Station (2009)
The Last Station is a film of power and beauty, with a score which captures the approach of death as well as the vibrancy of the passion and springtime. It is a film about a great love, a love which, as in The Lion in Winter, is torn apart by the pride of the lovers. It is the story of Eden retold, of Paradise lost, in which Adam takes the fruit from Eve and then blames her for his weakness.

Anyone who enjoys films about Russia (especially Russia before the Communists wrecked it) should add The Last Station to their movie queue. Not only is it about the end of a life and the end of a marriage; it is about the end of an era. Leo Tolstoy, one the the greatest novelists not only of his day but of all time, finds himself in a situation where he is caught between two loves: his wife and his cult of adoring followers. His followers, the "Tolstoyans," not only cater to his vanity, which his wife refuses to do, but he almost seems to use them as a means by which to annoy Sofya and keep her in her place. Sofya, on the other hand, is determined outwit the chief Tolstyan, Chertkov. Chertkov schemes to inherit the royalties of Tolstoy's work. He also wants to keep Tolstoy from being received back into the Church on his death bed. Sofya sees Chertov as pure evil and will stop at nothing to break his hold on her husband.

As described in Moving Pictures:
Everything I know I know only because I love.

"The Last Station" opens with this line from "War and Peace," and indeed this dramatization of Leo Tolstoy's last few years is a love story. Two love stories, actually - one at the end of a turbulent 48-year marriage, the other at the virginal beginning. These relationships, and the characters in them, are passionate and joyful, respectively, demonstrating the very best - and worst - love offers.

At the center of both romances is Tolstoy himself (Christopher Plummer, in his second, along with "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," eccentric role of the season). In the twilight of his life, the great author has eschewed the novel writing that made him famous for political tracts and correspondence extolling the virtues of poverty and chastity - despite his continued residence at a grand country estate and tumultuous relations with the mother of his 13 children. Less a hypocrite than a man struggling to resolve his ideology with his reality, Tolstoy is more interested in the lives and work of those who surround him than his tedious self.

Very interested in him, though, are Chertkov (Paul Giamatti, appropriately, mockingly skeevy), his trusted acolyte, and Sofya (Helen Mirren), his wife, who are engaged in a battle for the man's legacy and his very soul. Founder of the Tolstoyan movement, Chertkov is intent on convincing the great man to live out his ideals by leaving his life's work to the people of Russia. That would entail, though, a change in his will that would deprive Sofya and their children of what she considers their rightful inheritance.

Although blonde and diminutive where Sofya was dark-haired and rather large, Mirren ravishes the role. Throwing tantrums when she doesn't get her way, feigning illness to summon Leo home from a trip, sneaking onto his balcony to eavesdrop on his conversations, she's so passionate that she comes off as pathetic. Her desperation is embarrassing, and you just want to grab her by the shoulders and tell her to get it together. Chertkov's pot-stirring warnings about her selfish and manipulative behavior aren't without merit.

Yet, and this is where the mastery of Mirren's performance reveals itself, you can't help but feel for her. Just because she's paranoid doesn't mean her worst fears aren't true. All she wants is to love her husband, to be loved, and to "count" like she did when she and Leo worked together on "War and Peace" and she copied the whole of the work six times. Now her daughter Sasha (Anne-Marie Duff, McAvoy's real-life wife) has taken over her transcription duties and her role as confidant, and Sofya has become an irritation and a distraction. The celebrity couple of the time, Leofya live their private turmoil in the public eye, sniping at each other in front of dinner guests and the paparazzi who camp outside.
The Tolstoyan cult, which reminds me of the Cathars, are the heralds of the coming Revolution and the new order it will create. Religion is scorned, as is marriage. Although "celibacy" is preferred it seems that it is really an excuse for free love, and fleeing genuine commitment, even as Tolstoy uses his philosophy as a way to get out of being the husband of a mercurial woman. Sofya sees it all for what it is, "fake celibacy and made-up religion" and she heroically, if imperfectly, seeks to restore her husband to the Faith and to his place at her side. She grasps, and has long grasped, the mystery and meaning of holy matrimony, in which the union between a man and a woman is not a throw-away pleasure, but the forging of a lifelong bond. It is a bond she will keep until death and beyond.

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1 comment:

Julygirl said...

Supurb review of a fine film! I recently read "Sonya/The life of Countess Tolstoy" by Anne Edwards, (highly recommended, which details their whole exhausting life together. Though initially Tolstoy was seduced by Sonya's intelligence as well as beauty, it seems once they were married he preferred a 'Stepford" wife.

It is wonderful to see actors, who have behind them an amazing body of work, still hitting their stride even better than ever.