Three Stars – Insightful
Increasingly committed to the radical teachings of Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) ended his life excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church and estranged from his wife, Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren). This dramatic ending of his remarkable life has been written and directed by Michael Hoffman in “The Last Station”.
Based on the book by Jay Parini of the same title, this account of Tolstoy’s life explores the tensions and commitments of this literary genius and his relationship with his wife. Not only the wife and mother of his thirteen children, Sofya was also his partner in writing, as he depended upon her editing and insights. But in these last days of his life, as he became convinced that he should divest himself of all wealth including the rights to his works, Sofya battles against him.
Joining him on his side of this tumultuous struggle is his daughter, Sasha (Anne-Marie Duff), and the leader of the Tolstoyans, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giarnatti). Unable to partner with his wife, Tolstoy’s friendship with Chertkov becomes the focus of both governmental fear and family tensions.
Into this chaos comes a young, naïve Tolstoyan named Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy). As a personal secretary hired by Chertkov to spy on Leo and Sofya, Valentin quickly understands that their relationship is far more complex and loving than anyone realizes. It is Valentin’s presence that allows their struggle to find a voice.
Adding another layer of romance to the tale is Masha (Kerry Condon). A forward young teacher who has come to the Tolstoyans believing that their pacifist nonviolent resistance could save the world, she pursues the pure Valentin and teaches him of love. This combination of romantic love with God’s love brings a humanity to the film and to the person of Tolstoy himself.
“The Last Station” does not present the beliefs of Tolstoy in a way that demonstrates his tremendous impact on our world. But as a portrait of his humanity, it is insightful and worthy of his genius.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. The genius of such men as Tolstoy is often hijacked by others who want to use them for their own purposes. When Tolstoy explains that he doesn’t make a very good Tolstoyan, he is expressing this tension. Do you believe Chertkov was assisting Tolstoy or using him?
2. When Tolstoy accepts the teachings of Jesus as the solution to the warring madness of our world, he creates trust in the practice of passive resistance and impacted both Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Do you accept pacifism as a solution to the conflicts of life?
3. The attempt by Chertkov to keep Sofya from her husband seems cruel. Do you believe it was? Why or why not?