The Last Station, 112 mins, rated M, opens in cinemas 1 April 2010.


(This is my review as published in the April 2010 issue of The New South Wales Law Society Journal)

“Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love.”                          
                                                                             - Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

2010 marks the 100th anniversary of Tolstoy’s death. Not only was he one of the world’s great novelists, he was also a great thinker and social reformer, and his family life was of the utmost importance to him. The Last Station explores with great intelligence and sensitivity the conflicts between those three aspects of his life.

The film is based on the 1990 biographical novel by Jay Parini, but the screenplay was written by its US-born director, Michael Hoffman. His has made films as different as Restoration (1995) and Soapdish (1991). This time he works with two of the giants of stage and screen: Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer, both nominated for Academy Awards for their work in The Last Station.

Christopher Plummer is almost unrecognisable as Tolstoy, so completely does he subsume himself in the role. Helen Mirren has probably the role of her life – even better than her Oscar-winning performance in The Queen (2006) – as Sofya, Tolstoy’s wife for nearly half a century, and mother of their 13 children. Mirren is half-Russian, and she brings such passion, power and intensity to the role, but also a vulnerability that is extremely touching.

In addition to these two veterans, Hoffman has cast talented actors from the next generation. James McAvoy, (Atonement, 2007 and The Last King of Scotland, 2006) plays Tolstoy’s new private secretary, Bulgakov. McAvoy’s real-life wife Anne-Marie Duff (Nowhere Boy, 2009 and Is Anybody There?, 2008) plays one of Tolstoy’s daughters, and Paul Giamatti  is Chertkov, a disciple of Tolstoy.

The film’s production notes describe The Last Station as: “a film about the difficulty of living with love, and the impossibility of living without it”, but there is much more. The film examines the nature and responsibility of genius, and its effect on those who love and respect the genius. It poses questions such as: what duty does an artist owe to posterity? What if this duty conflicts with their responsibility to family?

If those questions weren’t big enough, the film also explores the very nature of love. There’s a moment when Helen Mirren, as Sofya, looks at James McAvoy’s (Bulgakov’s) face and she realises that he’s just fallen in love for the first time. Mirren’s expression is absolutely knowing, and so sympathetic and tender. She conveys a world of experience without uttering a word. It’s a profound moment in a film full of insights. The sub-plot involving the young lovers Bulgakov and Masha (Kerry Condon) is amusing and sweet, but for me the real interest was in the tempestuous, yet enduring relationship of the mature lovers, Tolstoy and Sofya.

The couple’s arguments generally involve money, and in particular the making or remaking of Tolstoy’s will. Is he going to leave the rights to his literary works to his family, so as to give them financial security after he is gone? Or will he follow the wishes of the “Tolstoyans” – those of his disciples who reject the things of the flesh – and leave his work to the Russian people?

All this is played out against the fascinating politics of the time, and a pervasive atmosphere of unease and danger. The Tsar’s secret police are everywhere, and people are expected to spy on and report on one another: knowledge was power in early 20th century Russia, just as it is today.

As film leads up to Tolstoy’s death, we begin to understand the true relationship of Tolstoy to the Russian people. He’s a true celebrity – a star in the very early days of mass media. Christopher Plummer’s portrayal of the dying man is right on the mark, his subtle underplaying a perfect foil for Helen Mirren’s emotional powerhouse performance. Together, they’re an acting masterclass. They can also be hilarious.

If you have never read Tolstoy, this film will inspire you to do so. If you love Tolstoy, this film will bring him back to life for you. And Academy Awards results notwithstanding, the performances of Mirren and Plummer are stellar.