The House of Tolstoy,
in His Winter

Christopher Plummer plays Leo Tolstoy in Michael Hoffman’s “Last Station,” about the author in his old age.

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“I FEEL that the attitude of people toward me is no longer an attitude toward a man but towards a celebrity,” Leo Tolstoy wrote in his diary. “Either complete devotion and confidence, or, on the contrary, repudiation and hatred.” Tolstoy’s harried words, and the ripe melodramas they promise, come to life in “The Last Station,” a new film about his turbulent final months before his death nearly a century ago.

“The Last Station,” which opens Dec. 4 for a weeklong Academy Awards-qualifying run before a wider release in January, presents a retiring Tolstoy eclipsed in his home by his inner circle’s strong opinions and fierce emotions about what he has become. The film, which stars Christopher Plummer as the count in peasant dress and Helen Mirren as his no-holds-barred wife, Sofya, is filtered through the experiences of an awestruck new secretary, Bulgakov (James McAvoy). He’s brought in by Tolstoy’s scheming associate, Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) — a proto-communist proponent of “Tolstoyan” asceticism who wants the living legend’s works bequeathed to the Russian people.

The resulting conflicts abound with philosophical and romantic declarations of purpose, and offer the naïve Bulgakov, and everyone else, competing notions on how to live, how to love and how to view the man at the center of it all.

“It was like a wheel with Tolstoy at the middle, and everyone was living from whatever he reflected back to them,” said Mr. Hoffman, the director of “Restoration” and “Soapdish,” who adapted the screenplay from Jay Parini’s historically based 1990 novel. “The obsession with him was extraordinary and in the end really exhausting.”

No one is perhaps more exhausted than Sofya Tolstoy. In Ms. Mirren’s portrayal Sofya tries anything and everything to hold her beloved husband to his obligations to the family and to their shared past. It’s a rendering that acknowledges recent views of Sofya as Tolstoy’s partner and colleague in artistic endeavors (some of which have been documented in “Song Without Words,” a 2007 National Geographic collection of her photographs and writings). But we also see her over-the-top exploits, like spying on Chertkov and Tolstoy by clambering onto a balcony.

“Her emotion and her love for him, that was her only power base,” Ms. Mirren said by telephone from London, where she is acting in a new film adaptation of Graham Greene’s “Brighton Rock.” “That is what is so fabulous about that character. She just constantly does outrageous things, full of real feeling.”

Mr. Hoffman recalled the deadpan inventory given by a crew member early in rehearsals: “The German costumer walked into the room and said to Helen, ‘This is the dress you wear when you fall in from the balcony, and this is the dress you wear when you try to drown yourself in the pond, and this is the dress you wear when you try to make love to your husband, and this is the dress you wear when you break all the plates.’ ”

Between the fiery Sofya and Tolstoy (whom she calls Lev) an identifiable portrait of marital tug of war emerges. Tolstoy, the more subdued half, rises to the bait occasionally but ultimately does as he wishes, for better or worse — including an ill-fated nighttime flight from the estate’s imbroglios. For Mr. Plummer the role called for a grounded self-assurance rather than great-man theatrics.

“The hardest thing is to play a genius, and even harder is to write a genius: you just say he’s a genius, and good luck,” Mr. Plummer said by telephone from Los Angeles, where he was shooting the film “Beginners,” with Ewan McGregor. “I figure that people who have enormous intellect and have done so much with their lives don’t have to push. So they are the most modest of men. They don’t presume anything. He is what he is.”

Despite Tolstoy’s nothing-to-prove bearing, his legacy in the film becomes an open question, which Chertkov is eager to answer. And as Chertkov maneuvers to paint Sofya as unstable and enlist her daughter Sasha (Anne-Marie Duff), “The Last Station” demonstrates another side to the intrigues: how history is a work constantly and consciously in progress. In scene after scene, someone present is noisily scribbling notes for posterity.

It’s a touch that in a way harks back to Mr. Parini’s novel, which divided its chapters among six perspectives. An earlier screenplay, which Mr. Parini wrote in collaboration with Anthony Quinn, even employed a “Rashomon”-style structure. Mr. Hoffman’s Chekhov-influenced screenplay streamlines the point of view but hews close to Mr. Parini’s book, which in turn drew on the diaries of Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Sofya and others. (Mr. Parini, who has screenplays drawn from his books about Walter Benjamin and Robert Frost in the works, happily declares his intention never to write a “straight biography” again.)

The film, shot in bucolic German locations, has its share of dramatically useful inventions, like Bulgakov’s lover, Masha (played by Kerry Condon), and Sofya’s presence at Tolstoy’s deathbed. But Mr. Hoffman’s telling has been positively received by, for one, the author’s great-great-grandson Vladimir, director of Yasnaya Polyana, the family estate, and avid attendee at the film’s festival showings. (Sony Pictures Classics acquired the film about a month after it screened at the Telluride Film Festival.)

At least one more contented Russian can be found among the cast: Ms. Mirren — by descent. Her family on one side were aristocrats driven off in the 1917 revolution, and the world of the film reminded her of photographs of her grandparents’ house. But any ancestral parallels with the movie’s roiling relationship prove complicated.

“My Russian father was actually rather quiet,” Ms. Mirren recalled. “He was very like Tolstoy, gentle and quiet and philosophical. But my mother, very British through and through, was much more like Sofya.”

The New York Times
21 November, 2009