The Last Station is the kind of adult drama that I’m just thankful is still being made. Therefore, I was ecstatic to also find it to be rather good. It features richly drawn characters, stellar performances, and the kind of meaty verbal roundelay that is becoming a rare treat at the cinema. Michael Hoffman’s film depicts beloved Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s last days and somehow makes it both joyous and sexy. Most importantly, it humanises several historical figures who have been resigned (unfairly) as either untouchable icons or devious villains. But that’s all by the by. The film isn’t nearly as concerned with rewriting history as it is with discussing love. And I suppose there are few topics more worthy of discussion.
To call the film one of those ‘love conquers all’ dramas isn’t very accurate. Love (at least, in this film) does not conquer all; it doesn’t even conquer a little. It strangles and suffocates. It curses lives. It might have even killed Leo Tolstoy, whose chaotic marriage to Sophia became as famous as his novels. But The Last Station is not cynical about love. It’s nostalgic and mournful. The love between Leo and Sophia never died. Perhaps if their relationship had remained untouched by his immeasurable celebrity, they could have lived a long happy life together. The Last Station isn’t cynical about love; it suggests that love is too beautiful and perfect to be sustained in this flawed world of ours.
Who better to flesh out such a complex relationship as luminaries Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren? The two of them are electric as Leo and Sophia. Their screaming matches; their coy flirtations; their desperate pleas to one another. These are two people who have lived a whole lifetime together. Mirren in particular is astounding as the sexually charged wife of the great Tolstoy, desperately trying to maintain her husband’s interest as he becomes more enamoured with social justice than her advances. She was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar at the 2010 Academy Awards; a fact that only makes Sandra Bullock’s win in that category all the more dumbfounding.
Mirren and Plummer may be the two veterans in the cast, but they are not the only actors to give impressive performances. James McAvoy stars as Valentin Bulgakov, Tolstoy’s private secretary and eventual confidant. Valentin was hired by Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), one of Tolstoy’s followers, who the author himself deems a better Tolstoyan than he. Chertkov wants Tolstoy to rewrite his will, leaving his works to the people instead of Sophia. Valentin is instructed to spy on Leo and Sophia’s relationship for Chertkov, but he is distracted by the freewheeling Masha (Kerry Condon), a young woman whose zest for life seems both sinful and celebratory.
It’s hard to describe the first half of the film as anything other than a romantic comedy of errors (albeit with a twinge of tragedy). It’s hardly a Carry On film, but The Last Station is livelier, funnier and more buoyant than any film of this subject matter deserves to me. And that’s thanks to writer/director Michael Hoffman’s ability to find a relatable hook. After all, what does the average viewer care about War and Peace? Even within the film, the book is regarded as more of a respected masterpiece than a beloved one. But love stories? Ah, now there’s something to grab onto. From Masha and Valentin’s awkward, virginal (but not for long) romance to the disintegration of Leo and Sophia’s marriage. Even Vladimir, so blinded by love and admiration for Tolstoy that he can no longer remember his original ideals. This film is surprisingly, confrontingly, relatable. The second half of the picture, although darker, is informed greatly by the laughter and love that came before.
I understand that a film about Leo Tolstoy’s last days might not be for everyone. In all honestly, I hardly thought it would be for me. I’ve never read any of his books and I rarely enjoy biopics (particularly those concerned with someone’s final days). But The Last Station finds the humanity in all of its subjects. It’s not an easy film to sell to audiences. Even I, who took great pleasure in the film, am having difficulty in explaining just why that is. Sometimes a film just hits us where it hurts.
The Last Station arrives on DVD August 5.