The film "The Last Station" focuses on the last few months of the novelist and writer Leo Tolstoy's family and social life. It stars Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy, Helen Mirren as his wife Sophya, James McAvoy as Tolstoy's new personal secretary Valentin, Kerry Condon as Valentin's charming and aggressive love interest, and Paul Giamatti as the leader of a group of "Tolstoyans" who wish to widely promote Tolstoy's ideals.
The film is set in early 20th century Russia, before the harsh realities of the Russian Revolution occurred in 1917 and thereafter (Tolstoy died in 1910). It was a time in history when Socialism was still an untried idealized conceptual form of government, and Tolstoy in his final years became more "radical" in his political, religious, and social philosophies.
The film raises 2 universal questions: 1) What do you do when the love of your life is in conflict with your highest priority ideals? And how does your treatment or mistreatment of the people closest to you, who have loved and cared for you the most, reflect on the quality of your ideals?
~Spoilers Ahead ~
In the final months of Tolstoy's life, he abandoned his wife of 48 years, Sophya. Before Sophya and Leo married, Sophya knew of his many sexual escapades he shared with her in his diaries. She knew he had fathered a child with one of the servant girls in his household. Nevertheless, she loved him and married him, giving him 13 children, 5 of whom died in childhood. The movie implies the question: At what point does your life become more than a solitary pursuit? After how many years of good treatment and co-dependence with those close to you does your life necessarily and deservedly become considerate of more than just your own priorities? Where should your deference be?
In 2009, it was widely reported that a British couple, both 98 years old, divorced. When a friend of mine heard of the story, she said, "What was the point?" It's a fascinating question. When do we ever stop wanting to define ourselves, our relationships, and our boundaries?
James McAvoy's character Valentin is a young, romantic idealist who wishes to promote Tolstoy's ideals. He runs into a young woman named Masha, who is less interested in layers of idealism, moral laws, and controls, and is more interested in physical and emotional feelings and connections. She quickly disarms his protests by being sexually aggressive with him. His ideals lose some of their zeal and absolutism when confronted with Masha's ability to naturally please him.
The film parallels Valentin's young love story with Tolstoy's love story with Sophya. Valentin is given a rare view, at a young age, to watch "ideals" clash with "love." Valentin, living in the house with Tolstoy, is able to watch a "great man" who is leading a "revolutionary" movement. He's able to watch how Tolstoy's focus on "the greater good" appears to harm and betray his wife, whose ideals are in conflict with his.
The film implies that Sophya did more than cleaning house and raising children while Tolstoy wrote. She tempered his novels' dialogues and added exceptional advice to his female portrayals. She transcribed and edited his major novels. She was not simply his wife, she was a co-creator of his greatest artworks.
The film is based on a 1990 novel "The Last Station" by Jay Parini. The title refers to many things, including the fact that Tolstoy died at a train station, fleeing his wife and estate. The title also implies the question: How will your actions in the last station of your life define your legacy? What will your last station leave behind for your immediate social circle and your community in general?
The screenplay is tight, moving, and never circuitous. The direction is solid and never distracting. The actors are excellent. I've heard the most praise for Mirren and McAvoy, but I found Plummer's and Condon's performances to be equally excellent. Plummer is in top form, less affected than in his younger roles. The film is a perfect length and the roles are not drawn as too overwrought or too "good" vs. "evil." We see the conflicting ideals of each of the main characters and we can easily understand the warfare that develops when their strong boundaries don't wish to co-exist.
I was hesitant to give this film a "number of stars" rating. But I appreciate it when other reviewers place some measurable rating on the films they review. When trying to come up with a correct number, I asked myself: "What was wrong with this film?" And I couldn't think of anything.
It's difficult for viewers to leave this film feeling good. This is not a film with a "feel good" ending. It's a real story about complex people who in the end desperately didn't want the same things. There are no clear winners in the final act of Tolstoy's life's story. But over time, I'm glad the work of his whole life has shined brighter and more prominently than his final chapter.