Scenes from Tolstoy’s marriage in The Last Station
Husband and wife argue, scream, smash the china, laugh, hug, and make up: the normal ups and downs in any marriage, you could say. But when the Mr. and Mrs. are Leo Tolstoy and his wife Sophia, with 48 years of for better or for worse behind them, very close, but very complicated, making a film about this marriage is going to be worth a director’s while.
And so it is for Michael Hoffman with his The Last Station [+see also:
film profile], starring an explosive Helen Mirren and an irreverent Christopher Plummer, and screened in competition at the Rome Film Festival.
Like the proverbial fly on the wall, the viewer lands in the estate a few kilometres from Tula where the great Russian writer lived, worked, and was buried, and gets an eyeful of his inner sanctum. Tolstoy, elderly and venerated prophet of a lifestyle based on chastity and the rejection of private property, among other things, is just about to sign a new will that leaves all his property to the people.
His wife – muse, partner, and mother of his 13 children – reminds him that he is a husband and father first, and a towering literary icon second, and does everything she can think of to stop him. It’s an epic struggle, but it makes them even closer.
Based on the novel of the same name by Jay Parini (in turn drawn from the diaries of Tolstoy and those of his relatives, and friends), the resulting film is well made and well written. Not the usual biopic, but a realistic and often hilarious account of the last days of one of the icons of world literature, which gives the legend a human face, with all his contradictions and weaknesses well in view, and focuses specifically on his family woes.
“What struck me the most about this story was the fact that a sort of apostle, which is what Tolstoy had become, was utterly incapable of managing his own family life, to the point of having to leave the roost at the age of 82”, said Hoffman.
Plummer turns in a perfect performance as the great novelist, spry and ironic, but the film’s real star is undoubtedly Mirren, who incarnates a Sofia so determined and so passionate as to teeter on the brink of madness. The actress paces on a window ledge to pick up secret conversations, shoots at the photograph of her husband’s business partner, and even jumps into a lake when all seems lost.
Her emotional performance lends a bit of Russian colour to a film that would otherwise come off as a tad too “British” (all the actors are from Albion, and it shows).
(Translated from Italian)
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