If you like Tolstoy and you think happy families are all alike, you should see the newly released film, The Last Station. Hell, you should even see it if you think happy families are as different and distinctive as unhappy families. It’s that good.
Christopher Plummer plays the aging Tolstoy, who was then the most famous and revered writer in the world, considered by many to be a saint. Some of his most devout followers lived on Russian communes, growing their own food and working for the greater good. You can already see the problem: Throw a few communes together and start nattering about “the people” and every loafer and charlatan and misfit shows up in leadership positions and then everything goes straight to hell. (I know this, since I came of age in the 60s and 70s and once lived in a commune for a month. I think somebody still owes me some rent money.)
Sonya, Tolstoy’s wife of 40-plus years, is played by Helen Mirren. All these years later, the world has decided her husband is a genius and a saint. Frankly, I can’t think of anything harder on a marriage. Who on earth wants to be married to a saint? If no man is a hero to his valet, you can pretty much assume the same thing about his wife. After a while, you get sick of hearing how wondrous and perfect he is, which has the effect of making you want to burst all their dippy little balloons by announcing a list of his most egregious faults. (Or so I imagine. I am fortunate enough not to be married to a saint.)
Anyway, at this point in their lives, the Tolstoy family is very unhappy in its own way, with communal hangers-on trying to siphon money from his novels’ copyrights to “the people” and change his will. Sonya takes umbrage about her family’s potential disinheritance — and believe me, this is a woman who takes to umbrage quite well. She screams, she shoots a pistol, she charms, she seduces, she tries to drown herself. She would be an utterly ridiculous and unsympathetic character if she weren’t played so brilliantly and vehemently by Mirren.
Christopher Plummer, on the other hand, manages to make the saintly Tolstoy very human, very malleable to his followers, still in love with a wife he can no longer bear to be around.
Put it all together, and you have a wonderful depiction of a once-happy marriage in shreds, an idealistic social movement turning venal and petty, and a time in history where a brilliant author’s life was chronicled by the media as if he were Brad Pitt. In a season of shallow romantic comedies about people you’d never want to meet, whose bon-bon lives get wrapped up and beribboned in 90 minutes, here’s a movie of complex and outsized characters willing to chew the scenery and burn down the house, since love is worth the madness.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about Confessions of a Book-Club Hater