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, throughout so many decades, we can feel the passing of an era.
The majesty of Plummer is matched by the audacity of Mirren. Hers is a tragic characterization achieved by means of comedy. In fighting for the copyright to her husband’s works, the Countess isn’t just struggling for her children’s security but for the certification of her very being. Love, loyalty, sexual passion, childbearing, devotion to his work (multiple times she copied out for the publisher Tolstoy’s indecipherable manuscripts), and management of his estate: was all this to be delegitimized by his collusion with followers like the sincere but manipulative Chertkov (played well by Paul Giamatti)? Her frenzy drives her to climb walls to spy on her husband’s dealings and to burst into his study, only to suffer a pratfall like a character in a French farce. Yet Mirren never completely loses her dignity. Her wrath is both ridiculous and dangerous, her pleading pathetic and justified. The strength that made Inspector Jane Tennyson (Prime Suspect) and both Queen Elizabeths so formidable gives Sofya Tolstoy an undismissible claim on our attention, no matter how outrageous her behavior.
And now it’s time to say “alas.” For, alas, Hoffmann has partially sabotaged his own project.
Presumably following the strategy of Parini’s novel (I haven’t read it), Hoffmann makes us see the Tolstoy tragicomedy through the eyes of a youthful follower, Valentin Bulgakov. He was a real person but the movie employs him in the same way that most historical novels employ fictional protagonists—as our chaperone into the lives of the great. This device works well when the protagonist is (a) interesting in his or her own right, and (b) an effective lens through which to see momentous events. (Tolstoy himself uses Prince Andrei in War and Peace to bring us into the midst of Napoleonic warfare.) Bulgakov fails on both counts.
When Bulgakov isn’t dancing attendance on the Tolstoys (Chertkov has set him to spy on the Countess, who sets him to spy on Chertkov), his character is defined mostly through his love affair with another Tolstoy acolyte, Masha, who comes across as a refugee from a British hippie commune of the 1960s. What is she doing among Tolstoy’s “No Sex Please, We’re Russian” celibates? She tells her lover that she is seeking “freedom and love,” but hadn’t she read Tolstoy’s peculiar ruminations on those subjects before she put on her peasant blouse? Bulgakov’s love affair with this completely unbelievable character makes Bulgakov himself unbelievable.
Worse, he doesn’t function well as a witness to the factual events. At first, his role as the servant of two masters (Chertkov and the Countess) has strong comic possibilities, but they soon fizzle because the script doesn’t dramatize the youth’s moral and sentimental squirmings. In the final scenes at the train station where the Count is dying, it’s simply incredible that Bulgakov (who by now has decisively shifted his sympathies to Sofya) puts up with Chertkov’s lies (Tolstoy has asked about his wife and Chertkov denies this) and doesn’t immediately take Sofya to the deathbed. This vitiates the film precisely when it should be most heartrending.
Still, The Last Station is worth seeing for its marvelous recreation of 1910 Russia (the actual Yasnaya Polyana and other historical sites were used), its brisk pacing and handsome photography, its daring use of comedy, even farce, to amplify tragedy, and—above all—for the power of Plummer and the fire of Mirren.