“The Last Station” is an intimate look at Russian author Leo Tolstoy’s final days.
Writer and director Michael Hoffman’s film explores the literary legend’s last year at Yasnaya Polyana, the Tolstoys’ estate located 200 kilometers south of Moscow. Surrounded by his wife, daughter and several followers of his philosophical and religious movement, Tolstoy struggles to find peace and reason amid a battle over the fate of his life’s work.
One side of the conflict is helmed by Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), chief disciple of the Tolstoyans. He urges Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) to amend his will and release the copyrights to his writings in keeping with his professed commitment to helping even the poorest citizens to learn the truths he pioneers. Tolstoy’s famously hysterical wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren), fights fervently against the change, arguing that such a move would deny her and their children their rightful inheritance.
Caught in the crossfire between Chertkov and Sofya is Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), a young Tolstoyan hired by Chertkov to be Tolstoy’s personal secretary. Chertkov instructs him to keep a diary and warns him against Sofya’s attempts to undermine the Tolstoyans’ interests.
The film is based on a book of the same name by novelist Jay Parini.
“I came across the diary of Valentin and got fascinated about that whole last year ““ the great drama of Tolstoy being torn apart,” Parini said. “I read the diaries, and then I closed my eyes and I imagined the dialogues.”
He also chose to exclude Tolstoy as a narrator.
“In that last year he was rather quiet, so I made him the still center of the book. But every time he speaks, it’s in his own language,” Parini said.
Hoffman and Parini worked together closely during the adaptation and became great friends through the process. The film focuses on the final unraveling of the Tolstoys’ tumultuous 47-year love affair, capturing both the heartbreak and the humor.
“(We knew) this could get beyond the dusty closet drama,” Hoffman said. “We wanted it to be something relevant, to make sure there would be modern points of contact.”
One such point of contact is the 1910 version of paparazzi, who seem to pop up whenever Sofya is throwing fits on her doorstep or scaling balconies to eavesdrop on her husband’s private meetings. Hoffman actually toned down Sofya’s character to make her more believable.
“The path to find the story was largely about cutting away chunks of Sofya’s madness,” he said.
But he had no doubts that Mirren could reveal her as a woman audiences can be appalled by, cry for and laugh at.
“Helen was so dignified, so ingratiating, it was important to keep self-pity out of the performance,” Hoffman said. “(Sofya) was in a very difficult situation.”
She felt she was losing her husband to his philosophical quest, a passion that Tolstoy grew more and more focused on in his old age.
According to Michael Heim, a UCLA professor of Slavic languages and literatures, Tolstoy underwent a mid-life religious conversion.
“He wrote an essay called “˜The Confession,’ in which he confessed all his sins and subscribed to a very rigid form of Christianity,” Heim said.
Tolstoy’s followers became devoted to restoring what they viewed as true Christianity, emphasizing selfless love and absolute pacifism. They opposed private property and advocated sexual abstinence, two tenets that Tolstoy had the hardest time practicing in his own life.
“He knew it was a part of his personality, and it troubled him,” Heim said of Tolstoy’s weak self-discipline.
Bulgakov, initially a model Tolstoyan, also ends up giving into his base instincts. The object of his affections is the beautiful Masha (Kerry Condon), a character invented by Parini.
She is a teacher who came to Yasnaya Polyana to pursue a more pure way of life. But she is not as dogmatic as the other Tolstoyans, and the lure of her independent spirit persuades Bulgakov to break his vow of celibacy early on.
The juxtaposition of the two couples is modeled after Tolstoy’s novel “Anna Karenina.”
“There’s the older relationship which falls apart and the younger relationship which comes together,” Parini said. “I thought that was a marvelous double, so I tried to imitate it in my novel.”
Hoffman read Parini’s book when it came out in 1990 and liked it, but he didn’t decide to adapt it for the screen until years later.
“When I first read it, I wasn’t married. I saw it as a historical novel,” Hoffman said.
Later he realized it as something more timeless.
“It’s about the difficulty of living with love and the impossibility of living without it,” he said.