A Russian Lear

'The Last Station'

To be a national hero even while advocating radical ideas that inflamed the young, antagonized the government, and tore asunder his own family; to flee his own home at the age of eighty-two in the dead of night accompanied by one daughter and a few retainers; to die in a remote train station and, by dying, to turn that place into a magnet for lamenting crowds and the international press: this was the fate of Count Leo Tolstoy, and the highest praise I can pay Michael Hoffmann’s film The Last Station (based on a novel by Jay Parini) is to say that it fulfills some of the excruciatingly tragic and excruciatingly comic possibilities of the subject.

 The writer-director guaranteed watchability by hiring Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren to play the Count and his wife, and, to his credit, Hoffmann’s script gave them some juicy opportunities to flesh out the characters. To hear Plummer darkly mutter, “I’m a conspirator” as he secretly assigns control of his writings to his acolytes rather than to his family, and then to see him cut off the giggling response of a follower with one autocratic glance, is to know that King Lear lived in the Russia of 1910. (How odd that Tolstoy thought King Lear a ridiculous play. Or perhaps it’s not so odd.) And when the old man takes leave of his estate, Yasnaya Polyana, on his final journey by kneeling and placing his forehead on the ground where he had walked, worked, and reared children, real and fictional,...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.