© Warner Bros. Pictures Germany

Ein Russischer Sommer (The Last Station)
Germany/Russia/U.K. 2009

Opening 28 Jan 2010

Directed by: Michael Hoffman
Writing credits: Michael Hoffman, Jay Pirini
Principal actors: Christopher Plummer, James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti, Helen Mirren, Anne-Marie Duff

Count Lev (Leo) Nikolayevich Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) comes from an old family of Russian nobility and lives on his family’s estate. Already famous for literary works such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, the press camps on his doorstep. (My film notes compare him to the “Brangelina” of today.) They observe his work with a group of “disciples,” who follow Tolstoy’s interpretation of the teachings of Jesus. They stand for pacifism and non-violent resistance, as well as rejection of private property ownership and sex; they live in a sect-like commune on Tolstoy’s land. Led by Vladimir Chertzkov (Paul Giamatti), they are not above demanding the rights to all of Tolstoy’s literary works posthumously in the name of the Russian people. But Tolstoy, age 82, isn’t dead yet. Their sharpest protagonist is Tolstoy’s wife of 48 years: Sofya (Helen Mirren). She fiercely counteracts any influence these so-called friends might have over her husband. Sofya is an emancipated woman undeterred by a stubborn, egoistic, combative Tolstoy who, she believes, should recall their mutual devotion and marriage promises. None of these characters are totally good or bad; all believe they are working for a worthy cause. Tolstoy seeks peace and quiet in the lonely forests around his home. He finds a sympathetic comrade in a new, young private secretary, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy). In mid winter, weak and sick, Tolstoy flees his home and gets as far as the Astapovo train station where he more or less collapses from pneumonia. The station master invites him into his own home to recuperate, but it is his “last station.”

Director and scriptwriter Michael Hoffman very believably and vividly presents his interpretation of Tolstoy’s last days in 1910. Much of the story is fact based on the book The Last Station by Jay Parini, who, in turn, researched the diaries of Tolstoy’s closest friends and relatives. (At the end of the 19th century everyone was writing diaries – on real paper – which left a huge source for historians. How can computers and email make up for this?) Perhaps there never was an actual Valentin Bulgakov, but Tolstoy most certainly had a private secretary.

Originally, actor Anthony Quinn owned the film rights and planned to play Tolstoy. Unfortunately, he died; therefore, this film is dedicated to him. The beautiful photography (in Eastern Germany) and excellent cast, filmed in many close-ups, make it worth your while. It would be interesting to compare this film with Jane Campion’s Bright Star about the young poet John Keats. Both Keats and Tolstoy are literary greats, both were surrounded by people with different agendas, both were influenced by a woman and both died, one young, one very old. Both films have excellent music, this one by Russian Sergei Yevtushenko. A female press colleague and I agreed that, after 40 years of marriage, we could connect with the story. Our male colleagues said, “Just another basic love story,” but how often do you see a beautiful love story? This is your chance. (Becky Tan)

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