The Last Station,
112 mins, rated M, opens in cinemas 1 April 2010.
By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer
(This is my review as published
in the April 2010 issue of The New South Wales Law Society
“Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only
because I love.”
- Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
2010 marks the 100th anniversary of Tolstoy’s death. Not only was he
one of the world’s great novelists, he was also a great thinker and
social reformer, and his family life was of the utmost importance to
him. The Last Station explores with great intelligence and sensitivity
the conflicts between those three aspects of his life.
The film is based on the 1990 biographical novel by Jay Parini, but the
screenplay was written by its US-born director, Michael Hoffman. His
has made films as different as Restoration
(1995) and Soapdish (1991).
This time he works with two of the giants of stage and screen: Helen
Mirren and Christopher Plummer, both nominated for Academy Awards for
their work in The Last Station.
Christopher Plummer is almost unrecognisable as Tolstoy, so completely
does he subsume himself in the role. Helen Mirren has probably the role
of her life – even better than her Oscar-winning performance in The Queen (2006) – as Sofya,
Tolstoy’s wife for nearly half a century, and mother of their 13
children. Mirren is half-Russian, and she brings such passion, power
and intensity to the role, but also a vulnerability that is extremely
In addition to these two veterans, Hoffman has cast talented actors
from the next generation. James McAvoy, (Atonement, 2007 and The Last King of Scotland, 2006)
plays Tolstoy’s new private secretary, Bulgakov. McAvoy’s real-life
wife Anne-Marie Duff (Nowhere Boy,
2009 and Is Anybody There?,
2008) plays one of Tolstoy’s daughters, and Paul Giamatti is
Chertkov, a disciple of Tolstoy.
The film’s production notes describe The
Last Station as: “a film about the difficulty of living with
love, and the impossibility of living without it”, but there is much
more. The film examines the nature and responsibility of genius, and
its effect on those who love and respect the genius. It poses questions
such as: what duty does an artist owe to posterity? What if this duty
conflicts with their responsibility to family?
If those questions weren’t big enough, the film also explores the very
nature of love. There’s a moment when Helen Mirren, as Sofya, looks at
James McAvoy’s (Bulgakov’s) face and she realises that he’s just fallen
in love for the first time. Mirren’s expression is absolutely knowing,
and so sympathetic and tender. She conveys a world of experience
without uttering a word. It’s a profound moment in a film full of
insights. The sub-plot involving the young lovers Bulgakov and Masha
(Kerry Condon) is amusing and sweet, but for me the real interest was
in the tempestuous, yet enduring relationship of the mature lovers,
Tolstoy and Sofya.
The couple’s arguments generally involve money, and in particular the
making or remaking of Tolstoy’s will. Is he going to leave the rights
to his literary works to his family, so as to give them financial
security after he is gone? Or will he follow the wishes of the
“Tolstoyans” – those of his disciples who reject the things of the
flesh – and leave his work to the Russian people?
All this is played out against the fascinating politics of the time,
and a pervasive atmosphere of unease and danger. The Tsar’s secret
police are everywhere, and people are expected to spy on and report on
one another: knowledge was power in early 20th century Russia, just as
it is today.
As film leads up to Tolstoy’s death, we begin to understand the true
relationship of Tolstoy to the Russian people. He’s a true celebrity –
a star in the very early days of mass media. Christopher Plummer’s
portrayal of the dying man is right on the mark, his subtle
underplaying a perfect foil for Helen Mirren’s emotional powerhouse
performance. Together, they’re an acting masterclass. They can also be
If you have never read Tolstoy, this film will inspire you to do so. If
you love Tolstoy, this film will bring him back to life for you. And
Academy Awards results notwithstanding, the performances of Mirren and
Plummer are stellar.