Leo Tolstoy is long considered one of the greatest novelists of our time. Celebrated for works such as “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”, his appeal is as universal as the language of love itself, a language for which he publicly espoused its idealistic virtues, but behind closed doors, led a life in his final days that was anything but. Married to the Countess Sofya for 48 years, theirs was a true partnership, a true story of love and hate, passion and fury. With a vast difference in their ages, sexual prowess was also a driving force in their marriage, with Sofya bearing 13 children and Tolstoy fathering a countless number thanks to his philandering ways. Often described as Tolstoy’s muse, Sofya even served for years as his secretary, going so far as to copy “War and Peace” by hand six times.
But with all of Tolstoy’s fame and glory, trouble eventually ensued; trouble arising from the deification of Tolstoy by his disciple, Vladimir Chertkov, and the creation of a new religion predicated on Tolstoy’s teachings. From these acts, the battle lines were drawn in the Tolstoy household as Chertkov and Sofya went head-to-head for Tolstoy’s affection and allegiance, particularly when it was suspected that Chertkov wrangled Tolstoy into writing a new will, a will that would leave his entire wealth, including his writings, their copyrights and all future royalties to the Russian people instead of the Tolstoy family. Enter Valentin Bulgakov.
A devotee of all things Tolstoyan, when offered the opportunity to serve as personal secretary to his idol, Valentin jumps at the chance. Initially brought into the fold at Chertkov’s behest, Valentin is requested to be Chertkov’s eyes and ears, aiding him in gathering evidence to help Chertkov convince Tolstoy that Sofya will be his downfall and that his true legacy lies with the Russian people and the world. On the other hand, Sofya sees not only the malleable naivete in Valentin, but the goodness and purity in his heart, particularly when it comes to his feelings for another Tolstoy follower, Masha. Free-spirited and free-thinking, while Masha may believe in some of Tolstoy’s teachings she is not blinded by them and has her own rather unconventional views on love and sex, something that both enthralls and confuses Valentin who is rapidly falling in love while just as quickly seeing the dichotomy and hypocrisy of Tolstoy himself. Privy to arguments on both sides of the coin, and now exposed to the joys and wonders of love and sex, Valentin becomes an unwitting pawn in this game of war and peace.
While Chertkov has his own agenda, Tolstoy seeks only peace and serenity. Not in the best of health, the pulling, pushing, conniving and deceit is getting to be too much for him. In the meantime, Sofya is determined to not let Chertkov get the upper hand. Fighting to keep what she deems to be hers (and rightfully so), she goes all out, no holds barred, pulling out all the stops known to womankind, assailing Tolstoy’s emotions with her arsenal of tricks and womanly wiles, not realizing that instead of realigning him with her and their marriage, she is driving him farther away to THE LAST STATION at Astapovo.
Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren embody the roles of Leo and Sofya Tolstoy. A slightly backward step in regal lineage, Mirren this time plays a Countess as opposed to a Queen (something she has done 6 times). Herself the granddaughter of a Tsarist aristocrat, both in person and on screen, Mirren has an undeniable regal air about her. Probably one of the tastiest female roles to come along in a long time, Sofya provides Mirren an outlet to let it all hang out. She seizes the role, making it her own. Describing Sofya as a “high drama, volcanic creature”, Mirren celebrates Sofya’s actual madness which according to director Michael Hoffman, allows her to “be a drama queen.” For Mirren, portraying Sofya was a delicate task “because she was such a drama queen, you could alienate the audience very fast. That was the challenge in playing it - to play the drama full on emotionally but not to become arched or subconscious or theatrical with it. You had to feel that this is just how she felt. That this was real for her. It was all absolutely real, of the moment.”
On the flip side of the coin is Christopher Plummer as Leo Tolstoy. Reluctant hero, Plummer is the perfect stubborn pacifist to the histrionic melodrama Mirren brings to Sofya. Plummer is emotionally larger than life as this iconic individual but at the same time often adding a reflective sensibility and human confusion to Tolstoy when dealing with issues in his own life. Individually, Mirren and Plummer are mesmerizing. Together they are explosive. Described by Hoffman as “extremely sexual individuals”, not to be missed is a seductive sex scene between the two which will have you laughing out loud while your heart just smiles. Just think “cock-a-doodle-doo” and Scarlett O’Hara the morning after her “rape” scene in GWTW and you’ll know what I mean. Priceless!
Using the character of Valentin Bulgakov as the emotional center of the film, his casting was critical and I can think of few that could bring the sensitivity to the role like James McAvoy does. With a wide eyed innocence, McAvoy easily leads us through the traps, trappings and conflicts of the Tolstoyan universe, making this as much an eye-opening experience for the audience as for Valentin. McAvoy’s enthusiasm for the role is boundless and goes far in conveying the real Valentin’s own thoughts and conflicts with the world into which he was placed. A perfect compliment to McAvoy is Kerry Condon as the headstrong, free-spirited Masha.
If there is anyone to give Christopher Waltz a run for Oscar gold for Best Supporting Actor, it’s Paul Giamatti who is brilliant as Chertkov. (Ironically, the name “Chert” in Russian means “Devil”, thus the popular belief among many in the early 1900's that Chertkov was the Devil Incarnate.) Giamatti’s performance expertly captures the exact tonal quality of Chertkov’s own writings while doing an emotional balancing act that oozes evil, but evil rooted in love clouded by obsession . Key is also the comedic element that Giamatti brings to Chertkov’s zealot nature. I can’t get enough of him!
Writer/director Michael Hoffman presents a brilliant portrait of the final days of Leo Tolstoy. Drawing on the 1990 novel by Jay Parini, as well as diaries of the Tolstoy family and friends, public records, film reels, the writings of Vladimir Chertkov (including his 1922 writings and the January 1911 pamphlet “The Last Days of Leo Tolstoy” released one month after Tolstoy’s death, covering Chertkov’s first-hand observations of the final month of Tolstoy’s life with daily entries up through the day of death) and the Tolstoy family themselves, Hoffman tells not a biopic of Tolstoy, but rather a love story, a love story seen through the eyes of Valentin Bulgakov.
THE LAST STATION came to Hoffman courtesy “of the drama queens in my house which are myself and my wife. Quite frankly, I read the book in 1990 and I didn’t see what the movie was. Who would want to see a biography on Tolstoy? I wouldn’t.” But then “I read it again in 2004 and saw immediately what it was.” Attributing his change in perspective to his being married 12 of the intervening past 14 years, “I wanted to make a tragic comedy about marriage because I’m fascinated by how difficult it is. How problematic it is. Very rarely do you sit with your wife or husband or significant other and talk about the fact that ‘at one time I really really felt close to this person and now I feel a kind of despair.’ ”
Adapting the Parini book for the big screen was no easy task. A “reductive” process, there “is no easy way” to do the adaptation, however, by turning this into a screenplay, “you get some kind of power through thematic concentration.” Spending a lot of time with individual diaries, “A lot of time with Bulgakov’s diaries. A lot of time with Chertkov’s diary. A lot of time with Sofya’s diaries”, Hoffman describes THE LAST STATION as a “story about living with the difficulties of living with love and the difficulty of living without it”. Deftly portraying the very best and very worst of life and love, Hoffman’s interpretation of the fresh new relationship between Valentin and Masha is contrasted with the hell and ending of that of Sofya and Tolstoy. Distinctive between the two is the similarity between the couples, prompting comparison of Valentin and Masha to what Sofya and Tolstoy were 48 years earlier. The complexity, richness and humor of these characters and their relationships is beautifully told.
Technically the film is masterful. A truly international project, German cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid’s work is beauteous and his method of shooting multiple view eyelines of a scene, allows for the best possible visual sequences and effect. Key to the film’s cohesiveness and strength of story, particularly given the lengthy monologues, is Hoffman’s technique of shooting by running entire scenes multiple times and not just grabbing single shots here and there. Very theatrical and appropriate given the subject matter and “ enabled the actors to embrace the characters even more.” Production Designer Patrizia von Brandenstein just wows not only with the exquisite German locations in Saxony, Leipzig and Brandenberg substituting for 1910 Russia, but with her attention to detail in recreating the Tolstoy estate and the Tolstoy residence. Monika Jacob’s costuming is period perfect.
But it is Sergey Yevtushenko’s score that ebbs and flows with the emotional tides, adding a harmonious background to the on screen conflict.
For Hoffman, I sensed real pride in the fact that the Tolstoys “validated what we had done because they said the way in which the relationship between Tolstoy and Sofya is represented in the film is much truer to what the family believes was their relationship. They completely embraced it.”
Leo Tolstoy - Christopher Plummer
Sofya Tolstoy - Helen Mirren
Valentin Bulgakov - James McAvoy
Vladimir Chertkov - Paul Giamatti
Masha - Kerry Condon
Written and Directed by Michael Hoffman.