During the final years of his long, rich life, Leo Tolstoy abandoned the art of which he was undisputed master. Infused with the spirit of primitive Christianity, he renounced the mendacity of literary indulgences such as Anna Karenina and War and Peace and rejected material possessions. Besieged as a sage and revered as a saint, Count Tolstoy preached pacifism, vegetarianism, and celibacy and made plans to disperse his considerable wealth among the peasantry. Sofya, his devoted wife of more than 40 years, did not share his esteem for chastity, nor was she amused by the prospect of imminent indigence.
Set in 1910, when Tolstoy was 81, The Last Station is a Russian King Lear, the tragedy of a powerful old patriarch who tries to divest himself of who he is. Based on a novel by Jay Parini, it uses Valentin Bulgakov (McAvoy), a young acolyte newly hired as Tolstoy’s private secretary, as an entry point into the tumult at the master’s magnificent country estate of Vasnaya Polanya. Bulgakov, who sneezes when anxious, sneezes often during the following weeks, especially when his infatuation with the fetching, free-spirited Masha at the Tolstoyan rural commune Telyatinki places an impossible strain on his commitment to abstinence. But he arrives at Yasnaya Polanya in awe of its lord, and the privilege of working beside the Great Man in an idyllic setting (meals and conversations are conducted al fresco, with ne’er a trace of Russian winter) makes him ecstatic.
The serpent in the garden is Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti), a Moscow lawyer who manages to make himself Tolstoy’s Svengali or — to be more Russian — Rasputin. Resentful of Chertkov’s insidious influence over her husband, Sofya calls him a “self-serving, puritanical idiot.” Chertkov, who tries to persuade Tolstoy to disinherit Sofya, tells her: “If I had a wife like you, I would have blown my brains out. Or gone to America.” Ordered by each side to spy on the other, Bulgakov, torn between his Tolstoyan ideals and his sympathy for an aggrieved lady, sneezes a lot.
The Tolstoy marriage, an instructive contrast to the burgeoning romance between Bulgakov and Masha, is as truculent and turbulent as the relationship between George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Christopher Plummer’s Leo is by turns ebullient, pensive, dotty, ferocious, and tender, and, as the love and bane of his life, Helen Mirren’s Sofya is a finely layered creation, a self-dramatizing diva whose threat to throw herself, like Anna Karenina, under the wheels of a railway car compels attention. When she plunges into a pond, she can count on loyal servants to retrieve her. Impatient with her husband’s proclamations about love as paramount principle, she insists that love for humanity is no substitute for embracing individual human beings. Through the vivid specifics of characters in their particular time and place, the film embodies a lesson in the seductive dangers of abstraction.
The most famous man in Russia when new technologies of recording and film were creating a culture of celebrity, Tolstoy was surrounded by journalists and other gawkers. Tents to accommodate the curious crowds materialize in Astapovo, where, fleeing Vasnaya Polanya, the author lies dying. Actual footage of Tolstoy accompanies the closing credits, but The Last Station does an excruciatingly glorious job of showing a flawed genius bungling the way he takes his leave.