Babes in Tolstoyland
The Last Station
Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station (from Jay Parini’s novel) tells of the last months in the life of Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) and his turbulent relationship with his wife Sofya Andreyevna Tolstaya (Helen Mirren). Parini’s novel interwove the diaries of six different characters, but Hoffman’s script simplifies things; we see events mainly through the young eyes of Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), Tolstoy’s private secretary.
We first meet Valentin as he is being offered the job by Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), Tolstoy’s sycophantic disciple. Chertkov’s conviction that Tolstoy’s writings are “the birthright of the Russian people” puts him on a collision course with the Countess Sofya, who regards them as Tolstoy’s patrimony for herself and their children. The fact that the old count has renounced personal property and seems bent on giving away everything he owns only sharpens her determination to provide for his family after he’s gone. Now Chertkov is under house arrest and forbidden to visit Tolstoy’s country estate (their ascetic, communal version of Christianity is regarded with suspicion by both the czar and the Orthodox Church). So Chertkov’s brief to Valentin is direct and unsubtle: He’s to serve Tolstoy, yes, of course—but he’s also to spy on the “dangerous” Sofya for Chertkov.
Even before Valentin meets Tolstoy, he encounters a challenge to his vow of celibacy and devotion to the Tolstoyan quasi-religion. At Telyatinki, a commune established near the great writer’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana, he meets and is drawn to Masha (Kerry Condon), a free-spirited young woman who takes a shine to him even as she snickers at his youthful, idealistic ardor. Later, when he encounters Tolstoy himself, he finds the old man less the icon of a religious movement than a vigorous and robust old lion in winter, relishing his memories of sexual pleasure more than his supposed principle of celibacy Valentin was led to expect. The budding love between Valentin and Masha provides a youthful counterpoint to the Tolstoys’ 48-year marriage, and McAvoy and Condon make them look as if they were meant to be together.
When Valentin finally meets the Countess Sofya, it is clear why Chertkov considers her dangerous. She is formidably charming—graceful, aristocratic and every bit as vigorous as her husband, 16 years older than she. When she tells of her experience transcribing War and Peace six times—she was the only one who could decipher Tolstoy’s chicken-scratch handwriting—and her input into the work in progress (not to mention the 13 children she has borne him), Valentin realizes that she has enjoyed an intimacy with the old man that the oily Chertkov can only envy and resent. Like Chertkov, the countess encourages Valentin to keep a diary, but with a difference: Chertkov wants him to report in detail everything the countess says and does, but she tells him only to write what he sees and feels, and to keep it to himself.
When Chertkov’s house arrest is lifted and he is able to visit Tolstoy once again, the battle for Tolstoy’s heart and mind is joined in earnest. As the writer’s health declines, he comes more and more under Chertkov’s influence, and Sofya begins losing her self-control, making scene after desperate scene, eventually driving Tolstoy away on his final journey.
In real life, Chertkov’s malice colored the picture of Sofya Andreyevna Tolstaya for generations, until the publication of her own diaries and memoirs finally began to even the score. Now that the venue has moved to the silver screen, the countess could hardly have asked for a more sympathetic portrait than the one we get from Helen Mirren. For that matter, Tolstoy could ask for no better than Christopher Plummer, and the matching of the performers to their roles and to each other is The Last Station’s crowning glory.
Mirren and Plummer give lusty, full-blooded portraits of the Tolstoys—both their playful intimacy in private and their bellowing rages that embarrass others. If, in the end, our sympathy leans more toward the countess than to the dying writer, it may be because—just as no man can be a hero to his valet—no writer, however great, can be a messiah to his wife.