The other day I went to see The Last Station. It concerns the last year of Tolstoy’s life. It tells the story of Valentin (James McAvoy) who is hired by Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) to act as a personal secretary for Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer). Chertkov is the head of an organization dedicated to spreading Tolstoy’s religious and ethical ideas. He wants Tolstoy to add a clause to his will that would make his works public domain after his death, so they can be more readily available to people. Tolstoy’s wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren) is bitterly opposed to this; she is afraid that she and her children will be left without an income. Valentin gradually develops sympathy for Sofya, and he comes to regard Chertkin as a fanatic. Valentin also has an affair with one of Tolstoy’s followers, Masha (Kerry Condon).
Tolstoy is portrayed as a complex character. He disapproves of sex, but he fondly remembers the sexual adventures of his youth. He enjoys the attention of his followers, yet at moments he seems uneasy with their tendency to idolize him. He loves his wife (who bore him thirteen children!), but her rejection of his ideas deeply upsets him. (I thought Plummer was very good as Tolstoy.)
I found this film interesting to watch, but not terribly moving. It failed to make me feel that the issues involved were important. The subplot of Valentin’s romance with Masha is not entirely convincing and detracts from the main story. The film also struck me as a bit sentimental – something Tolstoy would not have approved of.
I’ve always had deeply mixed feelings about Tolstoy. He was undeniably a brilliant writer. I remember reading an early short novel of his, Family Happiness, which is told from the point-of-view of a young wife. The narrative voice was so convincing that at one point I had to stop and remind myself that the book was written by a man and not by a woman. Yet there is this moralizing tendency in his writings that I find annoying and even somewhat offensive. (A Russian aristocrat is the last sort of person who should tell other people how to behave.) This tendency became greater as he grew older, until he began to preach a sort of religion that included, among other things, vegetarianism and celibacy. What kind of fun is that?
One interesting thing about this film is that we’re shown photographers standing outside Tolstoy’s home snapping pictures at every glimpse of Tolstoy or his wife. Their marital troubles are reported on in newspapers. Our celebrity culture apparently began with Tolstoy.