In the exalted love of man, is there room enough for the simple love of men? This riddle animates The Last Station (2009), a cerebral romance that considers the great questions of whom and how we are to love.
At the picture’s forefront lies Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), a man at once possessed too much and too little by love. The year is 1910. Tolstoy is white of hair but strong of head. Many revere him as a holy man: Not quite Jesus, burbles one devotee, but doubtlessly a prophet.
An eponymous movement spreads across the globe his teachings on nonviolence and human brotherhood. Meanwhile, the fading star has retired to Yasnaya Polyana, his vast country estate, where he dresses in peasant garb and struggles to produce the coda of his life’s work.
Yet the saint scandalizes some, and none more so than his long suffering wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren). She loathes his “fake religion” and scorns his earnest followers, particularly Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who plays Peter to Tolstoy’s Jesus. Chertkov returns Sofya’s loathing twice-over. To his eye, she is selfish, vain, and silly — while he is magnanimous, humble, and grave, as befits a servant of humanity.
Throughout the film, Sofya and Chertkov struggle over Tolstoy’s will. She demands it bequeath his work to the family; he insists it make his work public domain. Sofya has given Tolstoy thirteen children and believes she is looking out for her own. Chertkov has given Tolstoy his movement and believes he is looking out for humanity. Their fight for his favor — his love — has torn Tolstoy’s household asunder. With death approaching, he is split between his personal affections and his idealistic commitments.
Into this tumult is thrown Valentin Bulgakov (James MacAvoy), Tolstoy’s new private secretary, through whom the viewer enters the remarkable world of Yasnaya Polyana. Valentin is serious and sexless, a 23-years-old naif. He is ten toes, ten fingers for Tolstoy. Like all members of the movement, he professes to love mankind (albeit from a distance), but his one consuming passion is “Lev Nikolayevich.”
He quickly learns that behind the pure and lamblike Tolstoy of myth lurks the sensual and abrasive Tolstoy of reality, who giddily savors memories of voluptuous Tartar dainties. This startling dose of honesty — added to romance with freethinking apostlette Masha (Kerry Condon) and friendship with endearing Sofya — upsets Valentin’s tedious puritanism and challenges his perception of his idol. He comes to see Chertkov and his cohort as sour, stony pedants; Tolstoy as all too human.
Tolstoy himself, sorry to say, has no such pleasing epiphanies. Surrounded by fawning acolytes, estranged from his dear spouse, he staggers finally into disaster, into the “last station” of his prophet’s passion. The title alludes both to Christ’s suffering and to a plot detail, but as it concerns Christ it is definitely overwrought. Astonishingly, the film mostly ignores Tolstoy’s intense, if unorthodox, Christian faith, rendering the title even more peculiar.
The film’s most enduring aspects are its themes, lifted from Tolstoy’s own writing. Love, says Tolstoy, is the only reality. But what is love, exactly? How can we know it? How can we live it? Chertkov reveals that a temple big enough for mankind may be too small for the human heart. He is dominated by a moral fastidiousness that cripples his ability to appreciate — never mind partake of — true love, which is messy and violent and sprawling. He views love as the fruit, not the root, of radical fraternity. He cannot comprehend Sofya and Tolstoy’s singular bond. His is the cold calculus of human relations.
So obsessed is he with future bliss that present laughter escapes him, to borrow Michael Oakeshotte’s evocative phrase. This is the fate of all “improvers:” In trying to save others’ souls, they lose their own.
Sofya is quite the opposite. She renounces the world for the impenetrable melodrama of her own intimacies. Her love is defined by — deformed by — jealousy. She dwells in an endless tryst.
This tension — between love of the general, with its wishful abstraction, and love of the particular, with its covetous exclusivity — is a boundless enigma, and Tolstoy himself was trapped in it, unable to love at once expansively and familiarly.
The Last Station, despite its tragic conclusions, is lively and engrossing, if occasionally blunt. For those new to Tolstoy’s milieu, it might prove difficult; for those well acquainted, it might prove facile. MacAvoy disappoints, though to his credit Valentin is rather clumsily developed. Mirren and Giamatti deliver strong performances, respectively heartbreaking and infuriating. Sebastian Edschmid’s cinematography is vivid and rewarding.
Overall, director Michael Hoffman crafts a solid and compelling portrait of an incredible man, a man cursed with gifts, a man who knew but did not understand love — in this life, at least.