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Sun February 7, 2010
The Last Station
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time," "Cinema Classics," and "On the Marquee"
"Your works are the birthright of the Russian people." Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) in The Last Station
Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Leo Tolstoy drifted at the end of his life into spiritualism but of a more naturalistic kind, which disavowed materialism, espoused celibacy, and talked about the simple power of love. Michael Hoffman's The Last Station chronicles in historical drama fashion Tolstoy's (Christopher Plummer) struggle with his wife, Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren), over his desire to bequeath his works to the Russian people and thus, as she thought, deny her and her family rightful inheritance.
The film has an operatic tone due in large part to Mirren's occasional histrionics as she argues with Tolstoy and faces off Chertkov, Tolstoy's close friend and a force for the Tolstoyan movement, which espoused the writer's philosophy of austere life, feeling at times like a stripped down transcendentalism popular in 19th century America. The first half of the film has some electric moments because of Sofya's dramatics and her attempt to win over Tolstoy's new personal secretary, Valentin Bolgokov (James McAvoy). When the film turns to the business of Tolstoy dying, matters become slowly boring with overwrought lamentation and a slow up of the frenetic family dissonance of the first part.
The Last Station is a study in life's ironies: Tolstoy has been far from a celibate in life and therefore not a good Tolstoyan. Bolgokov is annoyingly enthusiastic about his new position and the tenets of the movement, except when he makes love to his new girlfriend, Masha (Kerry Condon) and even then he is such a prig as to be even more annoying than the histrionic Sofya. Recently innocent Richard narrated the story in Me and Orson Welles, and famously, Nick in The Great Gatsby. All three share in varying degrees intimacy with a famous person, with Bolgokov the least impressive.
Tolstoy does eventually die, Sofya gets the copyright, and I got an hour of splendid family invective along with my thoughts about the great writer of War and Peace and Anna Karenina reduced to annoying bickering about inheritance. Yet I enjoyed those thoughts about a sublime writer as a flawed human being whose final philosophy was about love and peace. Love he had in abundance; peace did not arrive.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE 90.5's It's Movie Time, Cinema Classics, and On the Marquee, which can be heard streaming at http://publicbroadcasting.net/wcbe/ppr/index.shtml and on demand at http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/wcbe/arts.artsmain Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com