Count, or No-Count
The ploy is nothing new -- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for starters -- of two couples, one young and starting up, the other weather-beaten but devoted underneath. Basically, that is director Michael Hoffmann’s script for The Last Station, which he adapted from Jay Parini’s novel. Hoffman used the younger male as vantage point by making him keep a diary, and for a variety of ends, other characters do as well.
Dedicated to Anthony Quinn, Christopher Plummer’s rôle-alternating stage companion in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, the biopic opened for only one 2009 Oscar-consideration week “to hook the 99 per cent of the audience who . . . won’t know who on earth Tolstoy is” -- and is receiving wider release on January 15, 2010. Though faithful in 1910 period flavor, the film is not about to serve as corrective to that alarming comment, for the theme is love, the motivating subplot concerns selfishness, and literature is not of any concern.
Viewers’ reactions should vary dramatically, as have critics’ so far, depending on response to the two lead performances. As Count Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy, Plummer writes nearly nothing, glowingly recounts his notorious profligate youth, admits the inconsistencies between his privileged life and the pacifist/anti-government and –Church/social reform/spiritual redemption Tolstoyan Movement, and seeks peace and quiet in his celebrity existence. Sporting symbolic peasant outfits, he is sad rather than imposing, a sometimes comical, sometimes ridiculous eighty-three-year-old smiling public man who can make like barnyard fowl in private frolic, grumble to family and intimates, be generous or self-absorbed by turns, and is the center of a struggle for his integrity as artist and man.
The mother of his thirteen offspring is Sofya Andreyevna (Helen Mirren), the love of his libertine life as well as the antagonist who cherishes him in spite of his infidelities and harsh conception of her wifely place. The relationship is under exceptional strain of late, for Vladimir G. Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), publisher and now leader of the religious-like Tolstoy cult of love and non-violence, seeks a new will from the guru-novelist, deeding lucrative rights to his works to the entire Russian people. More than content with their lifestyle, noting that her husband has been first at the trough, and insisting that serfs would squander the rubles on drink and dissolution, the Countess is not about to allow the fortune to pass from family hands. Not surprisingly, except for youngest girl Alexandra the children side with her, although the movie alters those odds and switches that daughter’s name to Sasha (Anne-Marie Duff).
Both stars holler histrionics to the hilt, as for example when Sofya threatens to end it all like Anna Karenina, although she then chooses an estate pond instead of the foreshadowing railroad tracks, eavesdrops in her nightgown from a balcony, semi-fakes a helpless fall, and theatrically likens a convenient Butterfly’s suicidal anguish to her own. She’s not above enlisting her husband’s starstruck new assistant, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), already vetted in Moscow and asked to “report” everything to Chertkov. “I’m a vegetarian . . . I mean, I’m celibate,” all blue-eyed, wispy-bearded innocence and sneezing confusion, virgin Valentin is taken into the great man’s confidence, while free-thinking Tolstoyan commune member Masha (Kerry Condon) takes the neophyte into bed and into her heart.
Thus pulled in separate directions, our vantage-point young man must balance his idealism with reality, his moral and material purity with his passions. He tries to walk a tightrope but willy-nilly is drawn in and forced to act and commit one way or another.
Nowhere is any literary effort, much less genius, on display. Even so, those of the highest talent are no less entitled than ordinary folk to disparity between words and deeds, to temper tantrums, foolish choices, and plain silliness with their pants and guards down and dressed only in nightshirts. That side of the Tolstoys is pictured here. Whether they were as over-the-top as The Last Station would have it, is another matter.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated “R” for a scene of sexuality/nudity.)