A film about the final days of Russian author Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace, Anna Karenina) may sound like a bore to the average moviegoer, and indeed, The Last Station is admittedly a very bookish, Merchant Ivory sort of film. But it’s also utterly engrossing, superbly acted, and full of big ideas that ring very true. It was a joy to watch this film and I’d be surprised if it doesn’t pick up a respectable amount of awards in the coming months.
The film boasts one of the best casts of the year and features incredible performances from Christopher “Captain Von Trapp” Plummer as Tolstoy and Helen Mirren as his wife Sofya. James McAvoy also turns in one of his best performances, as the wide-eyed protégé/secretary of Tolstoy. Paul Giamatti is also quite good in a villainous role.
Based on the novel by Jay Parini, The Last Station is a film about the complex two-facedness of love; It’s about passion and devotion and the tension between what we think and what we feel. It’s about how love is often simultaneously our greatest source of joy and suffering, and how sometimes the love of an ideology can eclipse the love of another human being (to the detriment of all).
The film is about Tolstoy, a brilliant thinker and writer who at the start of the 20th century has a worldwide reputation and fan base. There is a growing “Tolstoyan” movement (a sort of utopian Christian anarchism) of which he is the figurehead. He is larger-than-life icon and celebrity, and yet he is also a husband and father. His wife (Mirren) wants him to love her first, and yet she fears that his “work,” his ideas and legacy, are a higher priority for him. She loves him deeply and wants him for her own, but near the end of his life he has become “the world’s.” The film is about the pain of loving someone so much that you don’t want to share them, and the problem of feeling closer to a conviction or ideal than an actual physical person or reality.
The Last Station tackles huge ideas that resonate deeply, but it does so in a way that never feels didactic. It’s an entertaining film, first and foremost. And yet it’s all so true. I think all of us deal with this tension between wanting to love and be loved but also wanting to make a difference in the world. Sometimes those desires are compatible and sometimes they are not. Relationships often fall victim in an individual’s pursuit of significance. Does it have to be that way? I doubt it. But more often than not it’s a truism of life: We can’t have our cake and eat it too. There’s only so much energy and will in any given life. Should it be focused on our love or our work? It’s a deep and unsettling question, and The Last Station is one of the best films I’ve seen that asks it.