Sunday, January 31, 2010

FILM: The Last Station

I really didn't know much about Tolstoy before seeing this historically-based film, but The Last Station certainly presents an intriguing character. Born into wealth and aristocracy (he was a count), and a celebrated author in his own lifetime, he was also a man of strong convictions about a utopian communal society, and a whole following of "Tolstoyans" grew up around him. This charming film is propelled by the conflict between his ideals and his actual life, a conflict which is illuminated and exacerbated by two other very strong figures in his life. His wife the Countess Sofya (powerfully portrayed by Helen Mirren), the love of his life and mother of his numerous children, as well as his sometime literary assistant and fulltime financial manager, is concerned with preserving a decent inheritance for her children, and is thus at odds with Tolstoy's best disciple Vladimir Chertkov, who convinces Tolstoy to divest his estate as well as his valuable copyrights to the people, as a grand Tolstoyan statement. Helen Mirren gives a brilliant performance as the passionate drama-queen countess, fierce and powerful with moments of vulnerability. And Christopher Plummer is marvelous as the larger-than-life author, with a huge passion for life, he is a presence of Shakespearean proportions. James McAvoy is charming as Valentin, the very young, idealistic man who becomes Tolstoy's personal secretary, and through whose eyes we become acquainted with this world, as both Chertkov (villainously played by Paul Giamatti) and the Countess attempt to use him to achieve their crossed purposes. There's a great moment where we realize how Tolstoy the idol has diverged from Tolstoy the man, when he and Valentin are taking a walk through the woods (beautiful classic Russian birch woods!), and Tolstoy is reminiscing about a woman he had a romantic affair with in his younger days. Valentin (who is a virgin, and is celebate as is part of the Tolstoyan philosophy) is a bit embarrassed, and apologizes for bringing up shameful memories. "Shameful!" Tolstoy exclaims with a huge, roaring laugh, "oh no, not at all. My boy, I'm afraid I'm not a very good Tolstoyan." In the end, the film really makes you think about how a great man's following can morph into something different than the man himself, and also how a man can become divided between who he is and who he thinks he ought to be. That makes the film sound more heady than it really is. Those are just the thoughts I was lead to in the aftermath, but the film itself was a compelling story of some very human characters.

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