There was a time that the death of a great artist was a time of national mourning, when even those inhabiting the lowest social stratum shed tears for one who had given voice to their nation’s hopes, aspirations, and perceived nobility. When Giuseppe Verdi kicked, a concourse of hoi polloi turned out to weep and sing arias from the Maestro’s greatest works (and if you don’t think you can’t cry and sing at the same time, you’re obviously not Italian).
And so with the death of Leo Tolstoy. Even the peasantry, which no doubt had never read a syllable of the man’s writings, wept bitter tears at his passing from pneumonia at the Astapovo station in southern Russia, where Tolstoy was held up, having fled his estate to finally live the life of the wandering ascetic that he had been kvetching about for years.
The Last Station, written for the screen and directed by Michael Hoffman (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, One Fine Day) based on the novel by Jay Parini, tells the imagined story of Tolstoy’s last days, as a struggle for the great man’s legacy—and copyrights—reached a fever pitch. The antagonists were his wife, Sofya, played with all the Sarah Bernhardt-worthy gusto you’d expect from the great Helen Mirren, and the Tolstoyans, that group of devotees, nay disciples, who vowed to live the life of agrarian simplicity and nonresistance to evil that Tolstoy believed was Russia’s only salvation, despite the Orthodox Church’s demurral. In fact, the church demurred to the point of excommunicating the author of The Kingdom of God Is Within You, Tolstoy’s distillation of the Gospels into something like Quakerism on borscht.
Christopher Plummer plays Leo Tolstoy, and one can’t help but think that the 80-year-old Plummer is, strangely, both too young and too “simple” for the part. The characterization is in two dimensions only, a fault of both the original material and Plummer’s uncharacteristic superficiality, with his moods and mannerisms all surface and no sinew. Certainly there is never a sense that you are in touch, even for a fleeting moment, with the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. (Any more than you had the sense you had experienced the presence of Mozart in Amadeus—but that sort of was the point of the buffoonish portrayal in the first place: This is the guy who wrote Don Giovanni??)
Whether Tolstoy in real life (oh yeah, that) had become a victim of his own following, swept up by the power of his own religious folderol—or whether he was slowly becoming a better Tolstoyan, whatever that meant, and therefore in complete control of his choices, including the one to leave his writings to the “Russian people” and not to the woman who bore his massive ego, not to mention all those children, and who also helped him give birth to his art, is for biographers to discern. One is certainly left wondering just that—but not because of the paradoxical complexity of the man but more because, well, that’s what the screenplay was intended to do—leave you guessing, more for dramatic effect than a serious examination of the heart and soul of Russia’s great “prophet.”
But The Last Station, despite its faults, is much fun, especially the battles between Mirren and the Archbishop of Tolstoyanism, Vladimir Chertkov, played by Paul Giamatti (American Splendor) with just the right measure of barely suppressed rage that marks the true spiritually minded pacifist. If we were expected to side with the spirituali over and against the shrew of a wife who’s supposedly only out to keep her husband’s fortune for herself, well, we don’t—or at least I didn’t. For all her histrionics, Sofya is right—Tolstoyanism as a religious movement is a crock, and Tolstoy’s hangers-on, though perhaps sincere, need to come to terms with their more “worldly” urges—as does the young Bulgakov, played with a deft sensitivity by James McAvoy. (Ironically, it is Sofya who proves to be the greatest Tolstoyan of them all, as her love for her husband has the taint of the reverential, even though she seduces him one moment and threatens to shoot him the next.)
So what do you do when you’re arguably the greatest writer in the world, have wealth beyond imagining, enjoy thirteen children to carry on your bloodline, not to mention an adoring public, and all that energy still? Why you start a religion. (Which, apparently, is also what you do when you are arguably the worst writer in the world. Witness L. Ron Hubbard.) A thousand years from now, should the Lord tarry, most who read Tolstoy will simply marvel at the prodigious, almost godlike capaciousness of his vision. But only a smattering of suckers will be worshipping him.