Tolstoy was ‘never dull’

Unfortunately the same can’t be said for The Last Station

Historical fiction — likely because of the “historical” bit — often goes one of two directions. Either it awkwardly jams the historical persons into the palatable structure of a Hollywood drama or it tries to deconstruct their God-status making them fallible and human. The Last Station seems to attempt the latter when it opens with a quiet scene wherein Sophia Tolstaya (Helen Mirren) tries to comfort her sickly husband Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) and is met with only a ragged snore. But the film quickly devolves into the former as soon as a perpetually confused-looking Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) arrives to act as Tolstoy’s new secretary just in time to see Tolstoy and Tolstoya reveal themselves as odd-couple stock characters.

Though it’s easy to be distracted by all the rote melodrama too-easy historical framing and one-note characterization there is at least a single good idea lying at the centre of The Last Station. As a story chronicling the last days of Tolstoy writer-director Michael Hoffman hits beats then downright pummels every cliché the historical fiction genre has ever produced but he still manages to find a halfway interesting subtext concerning humanity’s tendency to make deities of mortals. Hoffman mines the Tolstoyans (Tolstoy’s real-life Christian-anarchist religious group) for the film’s conflict and they do a very able very boring job of driving a wedge between the “great man” and his wife. Much more interesting than the literal interpretation of this scenario however are the implications this idea might have for Tolstoy’s body of work. After all what book written in the last 200 years has more borderline-fanatical adherents than War and Peace ?

But alas. Where The Last Station’s dull ordinary conventionalism might have been part of a muddled-but-fascinating comment on the great realist’s contribution to our current standards of “good fiction” Hoffman only manages a brief flirtation with the theme in the last act before abandoning it for — oh God — yet another heavy-handed dialogue on the needs of the many versus the needs of the few. James Joyce once praised Tolstoy by saying he was “never dull never stupid never tired never pedantic [and] never theatrical.” The first English-language feature film about his life sadly is all of these.