Vague, Passionate and Erratic: The Last Station
by Binoy Kampmark
“Tomorrow, I’ll go to the station and lie down on the track. Tolstoy’s wife becomes Anna Karenina herself. See how the papers will like that!”
Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren) to Leon Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), The Last Station (2009)
In Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station, a portrayal over the last days of Leo Tolstoy’s life and a battle over the disposition of his estate and copyright to his works, politics and personalities clash. The wily aide and pejoratively labelled ‘catamite’ Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who sees himself as more Tolstoyan than Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), faces off with Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren) over how the great author shall share his legacy. Everyone seems to be scribbling notes in an effort to record the last days of an era. Be it doctor or secretary, the latter played by James McAvoy, there is a furious relaying of all that is said, irrespective of how noteworthy it might actually be. ‘In the beginning, there was the word…’
Parts of this effort by Hoffman are barely believable, though it all comes down to what viewers are expecting. Reviewers have found the scene when Countess Sofya’s desperate attempt to woo Tolstoy with the lines ‘I’m your chicken, you be my big cock!’ desperate and cringe worthy. Tim Roby of The Telegraph (Feb 18), is merely being cranky, though he is right to point out that the carnival, stage element never quite escapes this film. For many, that will be a more than sufficient digestive. Something might have been made about the black and white footage that is shown at the end of the film, featuring a Christ-like Tolstoy engaging in his labours. We are left wondering.
A dispute over title to an estate is something that has existed the moment the concept of property was invented, and it remains a fitting subject of study. Ever since lawgivers such as the Greeks, Lycurgus and Solon, envisaged an equal right of all humans (for them, men) to make use of land and property, disputes were bound to rise. The aim, which does have a habit of sounding cavernously hollow, was justice. Tolstoy himself pondered the mysteries of how much land each man needed in 1886. The jury is still out on that question.
Plummer’s Tolstoy as a reformatory, mystical character is left rather high and dry. His portrayal softens an extraordinarily paradoxical figure, and proves singularly flat. Audiences only get an inkling of the writer’s significance, a mere taste of his work. His utopian visions on property are barely explored. His pacifism is alluded to, without more, though this has delighted a few American reviewers. ‘The Last Station,’ writes a satisfied Rex Reed in The New York Observer (Dec 1, 2009), ‘is never arch, stuffy, highbrow or remote.’
There can surely be no shame in delving more deeply into one’s subject as a director. ‘Tolstoy,’ writes Milovoy S. Stanoyevich in an article in a 1926 issue of the American Journal of Sociology, ‘excels in the histrionics of reforms, and he achieves the most useful results when his exertions are fused by high moral purposes.’ Despite his writings on reform being ‘vague, passionate, and erratic’, they were expressed with a degree of sincerity. The ‘masses’, claimed Stanoyevich, were emboldened by such words.
Despite striking a negative note amongst various critics, the script, based on Jay Parini’s 1990 novel, has its bubbly moments, and more than the occasional sharp and witty interlude. The scenes are tender, and the final moments at Astopovo station filled with a degree of poignancy. The relationships, notably those of Tolstoy and his wife, are conveyed with intensity, even if they skim rather than explore. Audiences are reassured about the outcome of the property battle in due course. Love will out, even in matters of property.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark –at– gmail.com