Recently I reread one of my favorite essays, George Orwell’s “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool” (1947). Focusing on Tolstoy’s own essay, written in the early 1900s, about his lifelong dislike of Shakespeare’s work & his bafflement at the Bard’s fine reputation, Orwell draws a convincing parallel between Shakespeare’s Lear & the elderly Tolstoy.
I thought of this essay again while watching The Last Station, a tragicomedy about the chaotic final year in the life of the Russian master, played by Christopher Plummer, paired in a heavyweight title bout with Helen Mirren as Sophia Andreyevna, the Countess Tolstoy.
This highly civilized entertainment, opening today in the Valley, was written & directed by Michael Hoffman. Ironically, Hoffman has already brought Shakespeare to the screen with his fine 1999 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, & is also the fellow behind the underappreciated 1991 farce Soapdish. He’s long been on the underappreciated side in general, I think.
Tolstoy’s last days offer one of the most spectacular illustrations ever of the maxim that there’s no fool like an old fool, & also of the less widely grasped truth that a fool & a great genius can reside in the same person. Toward the end of his life Tolstoy, revered worldwide but especially throughout Russia, founded a sort of ecumenical social movement/religious sect based on unconditional love of humanity, pacifism, detachment from private property, & celibacy.
Since he was a Count with a beautiful country estate, & wealthy anyway because of his books, this was a significant renunciation for him. & since he was married to a beautiful woman of histrionic temperament who was still passionately in love with him & still very accustomed to the life of an aristocrat (& who had given him thirteen children!), his spiritual awakening did not, to put it mildly, go over well at home.
The movie dramatizes these scenes of domestic war, & not much peace, through the eyes of Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), an ardent young “Tolstoyan” who is pressed into service as Tolstoy’s new personal secretary. He’s also asked to serve as a spy for Vladimir Chertkov, the boss Tolstoyan & Sophia Andreyevna’s loathed rival for her husband’s devotion (& his inheritance), played with seething unctuousness by Paul Giamatti.
What ensues is a series of episodes, mostly comic though with an increasingly poignant edge, of the collapse of Tolstoy’s marriage, his peace & his health, all played out against a bucolic backdrop. Eventually he & a few of his followers, including his daughter, leave home, with no real destination in mind, & he is left bedridden in the remote train station of the title.
Hoffman’s direction & script (adapted from a novel by Jay Parini), suggest that he sides, on the whole, with Sophia Andreyevna’s view, & regards the Tolstoyans as sycophants, buffoons, & possibly even con artists, & Tolstoy as their vain & gullible mark. Yet he doesn’t deny Sophia Andreyevna’s snobbery & patrician bigotry, her narcissism & penchant for soap-opera-ish melodrama. Nor does he deny the courage & greatness of heart that led Tolstoy to these ruinous valedictory gestures.
Most importantly, Hoffman gets delightful performances from his cast. McAvoy has a lovely moment where he bursts into tears after his idol expresses interest in his work. Kerry Condon is mischievously sexy as a young Tolstoyan woman who tempts him from the true path, & Anne-Marie Duff is forbidding as Sasha Tolstoy. Mirren lets it rip as the Countess, rolling her eyes at her husband’s folly one minute, wailing like Sarah Bernhardt the next.
In the end, though, the movie belongs to Plummer, who makes Tolstoy a magnificent yet lovable sap, with all sorts of mutterings & chuckles rumbling out from behind his long white beard. It might displease Tolstoy, but somebody really ought to let Plummer play Lear sometime soon.