Thursday, February 4, 2010

The ugly battle for Tolstoy's legacy

Mr. and Mrs. Tolstoy in a rare happy moment.

If you've ever wondered how George and Martha -- the battling couple from Edward Albee's “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf” -- might have looked had they lived in 19th Century Russia, you need look no further than director Michael Hoffman's The Last Station. Set in the waning days of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy's life, The Last Station revolves around an epic battle between Tolstoy and his wife, Sofya.

The two had plenty of reason to fight. Toward the end of his life, Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) attracted a large number of Tolstoyans to an expansive form of Christianity that focused on Christ as a beneficent soul who championed the cause of a benighted but essentially noble peasantry.

To underscore his beliefs, Tolstoy wore peasant clothes and expressed withering disdain for his aristocratic heritage. None of this could have been easy for Tolstoy, who was both wealthy and a celebrity. And it was even more difficult for his wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren), who fought to keep her husband's wealth from supporting a movement she grew to detest.

Tolstoy was encouraged in building his prototypical social movement by Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who apparently attempted to appropriate Tolstoy's fame and fortune for the benefit of a movement that had established communes where participants chopped a lot of wood and refrained from sexual relations. (Tolstoy himself evidently hadn't shown such restraint during the lustful days of a wanton youth.) As played by Giamatti, Chertkov comes across as the ultimate anti-party animal, an intractable ideologue capable of little compassion.

Plummer, nominated for an Oscar in the best supporting actor category, portrays Tolstoy as a man of large, embracing spirit, the papa bear of Russian literature and of a social movement that he doesn't seem to take quite as seriously as some of its adherents. Nominated for best actress, Mirren conveys Sofya's desperation as a wife who fears she has been supplanted in her husband's heart by the Tolstoyans who idealize him.

Credit Mirren with also showing that Sofya – though often shrill – could seem a bastion of common sense. Sofya convincingly attacks the Tolstyans as peddlers of hooey, and Mirren makes it clear that Sofya's position is based on a finely honed and skeptical intelligence, as well as on fear of financial ruin.

Unfortunately for the movie, there's more to The Last Station than battles between Tolstoy and Sofya. The story also introduces us to an eager young writer (James McAvoy) who's hired by Chertkov to become Tolstoy's private secretary. McAvoy's Valentin Bulgakov lives on a commune near the Tolstoy estate, and is supposed to serve as a spy for Chertkov.

Instead of falling prey to Chertkov's agenda, Bulgakov begins to be swayed by Tolstoy's generosity and tolerance, so much so that he finds himself lured by the charms of a fellow Tolstoyan (Kerry Condon). Bulgakov also plays middleman between Tolstoy and Sofya, refusing to become a total pawn in Chertkov's game.

McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) knows how to portray avid young men, but scenes involving Bulgakov's awakening can't hold a candle to those over which the great novelist or the ranting Sofya preside.

Based on a novel by Jay Parini, the movie occasionally sputters, but remains worthwhile for the performances of Plummer and Mirren, which tend toward impressive exaggeration. That makes sense. The movie reminds us that Tolstoy was a carefully watched celebrity. The Russian press took a keen interest in his sputtering marriage and declining health. If he were alive today, Tolstoy probably would have found himself a subject for TMZ, the Internet celebrity gossip hub.

I doubt whether either Plummer or Mirren will win Oscars, but they're the kind of accomplished pros who have the stature to give Tolstoy and Sofyo the vividly memorable screen life they deserve.

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