when a nation could love a novelist
Leo Tolstoy is considered by many to be not just the greatest novelist of his time but of all time. His masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, even in translation, seem to rise organically from the Russian soil. He created some of the most natural, unforced prose ever written, and his characters are complex, yet still as accessible as any in literature.
The Last Station, which opens tonight (February 12), at the Downer Theatre, examines the life of this Russian writer and his struggle to balance fame, wealth and a life devoid of materialism. It stars the miraculous Helen Mirren as Sofya, Tolstoy’s wife, and Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy himself. James McAvoy plays Valentin Bulgakov, a young writer sent to spy on Tolstoy and his wife by Tolstoy’s companion and self-proclaimed icon maker Vladimir Chertkov, played by Paul Giamatti.
As this historical drama suggests, Tolstoy was a descendant of nobility, yet he transformed himself into a man of the people. In his later years, he embraced the peasant class and fought for their education and freedom from the tyranny of the Czar. A movement was started in his name. A Utopian dream was created at a school founded by him on his family estate; it was a dream of non-violence that inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. But though he sought to abandon ownership of all property, he retained his family estate and the privileges that pertain to a hero of the state. And in Russia, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was possible for a writer to be a hero. Tolstoy was a rock star.
In a simple, quiet way, Christopher Plummer brings that richness of character —the intelligence, the paradox, the endless searching for a greater truth and boundless sensuality — to the ailing Tolstoy. And Mirren is wonderful as his sometimes strident, always manipulative, loving and equally sensual and terrified wife of 48 years, Sofya. McAvoy has a natural charm as a young man whose own sexuality is awakened by the robust world that surrounds Tolstoy. And Kerry Condon is the most startlingly awake person on the screen as the young Masha, who seduces McAvoy, demands his love and leaves him.
The problem is that all of these wonderful performances and this great story about a great man and the world in flux around him are in the pedestrian hands of Michael Hoffman, the film’s co-writer and director. One would hope that working with such elevated characters, such magnificent ideas and such elegant actors would inspire a director to lyric and emotional heights; but it doesn’t. At points, Hoffman directs like it was a BBC docudrama. There are moments, a scene here and there, where real tension is developed, where the comedy and tragedy that live so close to each other in the best of Russian literature (the kind that Chekhov created and learned so well in his many visits with Tolstoy) is palpable, but the next you are back slogging through the mud of mediocrity again.
The Last Station opens Friday, Feb. 12, at the Downer Theatre, located at 2589 N. Downer Ave.