In most period films nowadays, the director appears so enraptured with getting right every detail of daily life, scenery, costume, that the actual story tends to get lost. It certainly is the case with “The Last Station,” a stilted, ponderous film by Michael Hoffman, based on the Jay Parini novel of the same name, which relates the fight over Leo Tolstoy’s legacy in the last year of his life. Should proceeds from his enormously successful novels such as War and Peace or Anna Karenina be deeded to the Russian people or to Sofya, his wife of forty-eight years with whom he shares an uneasy and passionate marriage? There isn’t enough here to sustain a narrative. Despite great performers, the film lapses into repetition and tediousness.
Christopher Plummer is right on as the old man of letters. Helen Mirren, who has been much written about for her part, may seem to be overacting unless we remember that a high-strung Russian countess—or any Russian, for that matter—is supposed to be emotional and given to tantrums and occasional hysteria. Paul Giamatti is perfectly hateful as the scheming Chertkov. The pleasant surprise is James McAvoy who, no longer just a pretty face, plays with sensitivity the part of the anguished secretary. All in all, “The Last Station’s” weaknesses are also its (only) strengths: It gives us a sense of what life could be in late nineteenth-century Russia in Yasnaya Polyana, the stately home of an extremely wealthy count—world-famous writer to boot—even if some points are made over and over (more jam in your tea?).
The cinematography is superb. The gorgeous birch forests, so present in Russian literature, immediately set the tone. Another interesting aspect of “The Last Station” is to make us realize what we may have forgotten: the fame and importance of Tolstoy in his lifetime, his far-reaching influence, the reality of the Tolstoyan ideal, the utopian foundation and commune he established on rather simple libertarian principles, education for his serfs, chastity and the simple life (which he embraced only as far as it suited him) and, again, his enormous wealth. (Disciples living in the commune travel two hours by coach or on horseback to get to the main house.)
When, in 1910, he’s lying on his deathbed in Astapovo, a small town where his train stopped, his physician has to step out every so often and stand on a crate to deliver the latest health bulletin to the gaggle of journalists literally camping there, tents and equipment and all—the paparazzi of the time—or read out telegrams from contemporaries such as Henry James or Joseph Conrad. So, to see or not to see “The Last Station”? Probably to see for the time travel and insights into a world that in just four years would be reduced to rubble by the extraordinarily murderous World War I and a Russia that just seven years later would usher in a nightmare based on a social order of far less benign nature.