“All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
First line of "Anna Karenina"
One of the last of the Oscar nominated films has finally arrived in the area, that being Michael Hoffman's film of "The Last Station," based on the novel by Jay Parini,* subtitled "A Novel of Tolstoy's Last Year." It tells the story of the last turbulent year in Lev Tolstoy's life** (the author is played by Christopher Plummer, nominated for Best Supporting Actor—Plummer's first nomination) when he was being pulled in two different directions: by his own ideology of anti-materialism—and his desire to create a communistic society around himself that included donating the rights of his work to the Russian people—and the conflicting desires of his family to leave the rights to his family guaranteeing an inheritance to his wife (Helen Mirren, nominated for Best Actress) and children.
It culminates in the story behind a famous photograph—Tolstoy, a Russian hero, had his life very well-documented***—of a forlorn scene as Mrs. Tolstoy, the Countess Sofya—strains to see through the window of the train station where her estranged husband lay dying.
It begins with the arrival of Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) to the Telyatinki commune, where the young student has been chosen by Tolstoy's acolytes to serve, officially as Tolstoy's secretary, and unofficially as a go-between (and spy) between them and the Countess Sofya in their effort to change the writer's will and pass the rights to the masses. She is having none of it, despising her husband's followers ("No wonder I'm so lonely! I'm surrounded by morons!"), especially Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti)—"a sycophant and a pervert"—whose desire it is to set Tolstoy up as a visionary for the communist ideology—as interpreted through his own vision, of course.
Bulgakov is a total naif, desirable to both sides: familiar with Tolstoy's work and philosophy to appeal to the Tolstoyans, and young and innocent to the others. For Tolstoy, he's a boon—a young man with ideas that don't sound like echoes of his own. At their first meeting, Tolstoy is delighted with Bulgakov and wants to know about his writings; Bulgakov is overcome: "You are Lev Tolstoy and you ask me about my work?" That's part of the appeal. During a walk through the fields the author confesses he's not a very good Tolstoyan and confesses a cherished memory of a past love affair. "You mustn't torture yourself so!" stammers Bulgakov. "Torture!" Plummer as Tolstoy roars. "You are a virgin!"
Not for long. Bulgakov attracts the attention of Masha (Kerry Condon), who is only too eager to help Bulgakov break the commune's celibacy edict. She's a character created by Parini to serve as a love interest, but it has the effect of turning the story a bit into "Tolstoy in Love." It distracts a bit, but gives Bulgakov a romantic's eye towards the conflicts within the group and as he is pushed and pulled between the two telegraphs his intentions. She does serve a purpose besides love scenes.
Hoffman ("Restoration," "Soapdish," 1999's version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream,") keeps things light and sun-splashed throughout, simulating natural light as much as possible, showcasing the performances of the principles over overt directorial flourishes for the most part. And the performances are the reason to see the film—Mirren has a fine time with the manic possibilities of her role, and Plummer exudes warmth as the elderly Tolstoy with maybe a little too much twinkle in his eyes—there are pictures of the man at that age where the eyes are pretty flinty. The screenplay makes the most of the elderly author swaying from one loyalty to the other, weakening his health and resolve. Although Mirren may not win for her performance—too much competition from Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock—Christopher Plummer might pull an upset win garnering an Oscar representing his body of work (which has only increased of late).
* Parini worked on an early screenplay of the novel with Anthony Quinn, and the film is dedicated to him.
** It's "Lev" in the movie, as in Russia. "Leo" is an Anglicized version of the name.
*** One of the joys of the film is to see some of the silent footage of Tolstoy and his family played next to the closing credits.