This is the kind of film that reminds me of how wrong our modern world is, with its preprocessed knowledge and first-person blog culture, its unquenchable thirst for peeping-tom bedroom dramas (oh-so-lucrative for the tabloids): the private lives of artists have, it seems become more exciting than their work.
So, fittingly, The Last Station is a star-studded account of the last summer in the life of one of the world’s greatest novelists – a larger-than-life character who’s been shrunk to fit the box of TV-sized life-drama. The 1,400 pages of the paperback version of War and Peace may not be for everyone, but who can’t identify with the domestic struggles of its author? And surely Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy (a puppety Plummer) had a complicated relationship with Countess Sofia Andreyevna (Mirren, in ‘peppy’ mode), his wife of 48 years (and 16 years his junior), a woman who bore him 13 children, copied out War and Peace in longhand six times, and by many accounts was the great passion and frustration of his life.
The script is based on the eponymous novel by Jay Parini – a polyphonic account of the great man drawn from letters and personal diaries. But director Hoffman reduced the story to the unique point of view of Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), Tolstoy’s eager new assistant who has been assigned to the post as much to spy on Countess Sofia as for his clerical skills. Bulgakov is on the lookout for any signs of sabotage to the sacred cause of the Tolstoyans – 19th-century hippies who started a commune at Yasnaya Polyana, the author’s beautiful family estate. At stake is a plan by Vladimir Chertkov, Tolstoy’s most trusted disciple, to convince the ailing author to leave the rights to his works to the Russian people, rather than to his family – which is likely to antagonize the aforementioned, and otherwise tempestuous, Countess.
The Last Station also risks a glimpse into Tolstoy’s irreconcilable inner moral tensions in his quest for self-perfection: he was a wealthy landowner who opposed private property; a married man who hated the institution of marriage; and, in his youth at least, a randy flesh-lover who professed the ideals of chastity (again, not a comfortable position for his beloved wife). Hoffman fashionably refuses to adhere to the Tolstoyan principle of sexual abstinence, and to make his point digs out a sappy side-plot in which the appropriately chaste and veggie-eating Valentin gets converted to the higher pleasures of the flesh (not to beef stroganoff though: the superiority of flesh over meat is another unchallenged credo of our times!). His paramour is the sassy, free-thinking commune-dweller Masha and their tryst results in the hot sex scene of the film – for all the duo’s talents, copulation between the sexagenarian Mirren and 80-year-old Plummer would have not proved such a crowd-pleaser.
Apparently Hoffman read all of Chekhov’s plays before beginning the screenplay (hopefully he read Tolstoy too!) and the German producer Jens Meurer rejoices in this issue (see our interview on page 38) at the Chekhovian mood of the film, as if assembling a colourful Russian company around a samovar on a country estate could do the trick. Well, we wish! Unfortunately, Tolstoy’s last summer has been turned into no more than a domestic drama for Gala readers: expect no intellectual epiphanies, no lasting emotions or sweeping historical insight, just a nifty TV drama full of beautiful vistas that’s ever-eager to please its audience. The best scene? The moving historic footage at the end of the film, in which Tolstoy, the great man, is encircled by the real Sofya and his entourage. Real life is often larger than fiction; The Last Station is more sad evidence of that.
THE LAST STATION (EIN RUSSISCHER SOMMER) (Germany, Russia, UK, 2008) Directed by Michael Hoffman with James McAvoy, Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren. Starts January 28. Rating: 1/4