Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Last Station

2009 *112m *Michael Hoffman, director *

Tolstoi walked out (on a horse carriage, actually, accompanied by a few others, and thoughtfully equipped with necessities like enema equipment) of his family estate Yasnaya Polyana due to differences with his wife Sofia in the winter of 1910. He was eighty two years old. He died of pneumonia just a few days later at a remote railway station, surrounded by associates and a swarm of press representatives, waiting to report the big news of his expected death. The present film provides the details and circumstances of the last year of his life which led to this well known and much made of but litttle understood tragedy. It is an engrossing drama specially for those with an interest in this author and argues Sofia's viewpoint making it clear that she was not the undiluted vixen many of us might have imagined her.

After achieving world fame as a novelist, fathering fourteen children, indulging in more than his share of philandering and participating in military expeditions, Tolstoi turned his mind to spiritual activism in his latter years. He became known as a sage winning the admiration of the much younger Gandhi, who named his own experiment in communal living in South Africa as Tolstoi Farm. Tolstoi's ideas involved divesting himself of his landed estates and the income from his literary works. In the film he wills the copyrights to the public domain on the persuasion of the leaders of the Tolstoyan movement, and this is the cause of the ferocious marital confrontation, fully capitalised in the high voltage histrionics of Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer, which make up in volume what mighy be lacking in depth.

The movie fails in bringing out the depth or stature of Tolstoi and there is no gleaning of the peasant milieu out of which his utopian activism must have originated. While Sofia's viewpoint as the recieving end of a great man's beneficence at the expense of his family is convincingly sketched even if overdone, Tolstoi's logic and philosophy is nowhere visible. The movie is worth seeing as a sugar coated and easy to swallow capsule which makes you a bit better informed about Tolstoi's life if not his well springs. The film does not do justice to the man. In fact, it barely falls short of ridiculing him, veering towards painting him as a mere jolly good fellow, slightly embarrassed by his own eccentricities. Mirren easily scores over Plummer.

Perhaps, in contrast to Gandhi and MLK, Tolstoi was no more than a genius aspiring to be a great man, a monumental talent without the substance of true humanism.


Anonymous said...

As a comedy, it works; as a drama, it's weak. Still, Mirren and Plummer are delightful to watch, especially in "Chicken" scene.

S M Rana said...

The chicken scene was the last word in pre-coital plumage display.

Nick Duval said...

Mirren should have won last year's Oscar in my opinion.

S M Rana said...

@ Nick Duval
Well, she is certainly the stellar figure, and the old guy's viewpoint is nowhere in sight.

Anonymous said...

Mirren is one actress who could easily win the Oscar any year that she's in a movie. She's just magnificent in everything.

I haven't yet seen this film (though I will, if only for Helen Mirren), but I wonder if anyone here has read the book.

S M Rana said...


Following the adage that something is better than nothing, the gain from the movie is to get a glimpse, however partial, into a phase of life of a literary giant who one has admired. Given the chance, I would read W&P, something I miss having done.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I plan on doing that, too, but there is an actual book called The Last Station that the movie is based on. Might be worth a read, even if reading a book by Tolstoy will always trump reading a book about him.

S. M. Rana said...

I'd understood you first time.