Watch this movie: The Last Station

All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Leo Tolstoy

I love the Russian authors especially Leo Tolstoy and Anna Karenina is my favorite of the two of his novels I have read. War and Peace being the other one, the one that is sometimes described as the greatest novel ever written. It was the love of these books that led me to rent the movie, The Last Station, a 2009 biopic (widely available in 2010) about the last year of Tolstoy’s life. The movie is based on Jay Parini’s biographical novel of the same name and from the description of the movie, I assumed Tolstoy, himself, beautifully played by Christopher Plummer, would be the story’s focus, but for me, it was actually Tolstoy’s wife Sofia, played by Helen Mirren, who stole the show. Actually it was Helen Mirren’s performance as Sofia.

The story’s overarching conflict centers on a question of ownership: When it comes to Tolstoy’s work, to whom does it belong, his wife and family or the Russian people? Vladimir Chertkov, devoted friend and the leader of Tolstoy’s faithful followers, the Tolstoyans, are attempting to persuade Tolstoy to sign away all of his rights to his work, an agreement that would make most modern day authors cringe and one that causes Sofia great consternation and emotional distress. It’s hard not to sympathize with her, though, when you learn the facts: On the eve of their wedding Tolstoy handed Sofia his diaries chronicling his past sexual escapades. Undeterred by that oh-so-romantic gesture, she bore the man 13 children, five of whom died in childhood and in the midst of all this, she gave him the peace and quiet necessary to write two of the most important novels of the 19th century. And she managed the family’s financial affairs. But here’s the clincher, at least for me: In the early years of their marriage Sofia acted as her husband’s secretary and proofreader and in that capacity she copied by hand--yep, you read it right, she copied by hand!--War and Peace, no fewer than seven times from beginning to end! It’s a matter of fact, of record. And now the guy wants to sign away his rights and the income that sustains his family?!

For me, this was the actual story’s focus, this personal, intimate battle that wages (or rages) between Sofia and her beloved Lyovochka (Sofia’s affectionate name for Leo Nikolayevich). They have always shared a great love for one another, albeit tempestuous at times, but Tolstoy, with his public calls for universal peace, chastity, women’s freedom, and the abolishment of private property, hardened through the years into a clear voice for the social reform that was such a prominent theme in his written work. At 82, when the movie begins, he’s become the Russian nation’s most famous utopian. The people revere him as a savior. His followers live in communes that could be prototypes for those that were prevalent in the 1960’s.“I don’t think he’s Christ,’’ says Tolstoy’s doctor (played by John Sessions). “Christ is Christ. I do believe he’s a prophet, though.’’ Sofia, on the other hand, has remained traditional. She married a count in a church. She was a countess and therefore entitled to the lifestyle to which she was accustomed. On a deeper, more emotionally affecting level, she felt she was losing Tolstoy to people who didn’t understand him, who only meant to use him to further their own fanatical beliefs. She goes to theatrical lengths to prevent this from happening. It is almost unbearable to watch her histrionics and yet your heart is torn for her, for her suffering.

Helen Mirren makes you see this, feel Sofia’s torment. Mirren’s performance is superb verging as it does on the melodramatic but with such exquisite precision, you can’t dismiss it as over the top. There is one scene where she crumples to the floor with as much grace and pathos as Anna Pavlova in her role as the dying swan. Mirren received many nominations for her portrayal of Sofia and won the Best Actress award at the 2009 Rome International Film Festival.

If you haven’t seen it, The Last Station is worth watching for her performance alone.

Comments

Thank you so much for this suggestion! I keep seeing it in the "recommended for you" section on Netflix, but running past it for some reason. But now reading your review makes me want to go ahead and watch it!
Barbara Sissel said…
You are so welcome, Kathryn. I'd love to hear your comments once you've seen it. I keep thinking about it ... how complex the man was in real life and it seems as if his writings reflected that. They were a mirror of himself. I think that's what Sofia knew, maybe, and while it drew her, that utopian aspect of his character, it also frightened her. There are lots of layers to this subject matter!

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