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Culture DVD

The Last Station

(Stephan Rabold/Sony Pictures Classics)


The Last Station

Rather than delve into Tolstoy's late writings or the intellectual movement it inspired, The Last Station focuses on the marriage between Leo and Sofya Tolstoy and the factors that contributed to their estrangement in the days before his death.

Played by Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, the Tolstoys are a hilarious, passionate, and deeply divided couple. Leo toys with the idea of making a grand gesture that will exemplify his ideals-he wants to give away all his worldly possessions, including the copyrights to his works, upon his death. As the business-minded partner who has spent her life managing his accounts and running his estate (while also bearing him 13 children), Sofya understandably objects to this plan. Yet it isn't what they disagree about that is tearing apart their union so much as how they disagree.

As Tolstoy's wide-eyed assistant and fervent devotee, Valentin, James McAvoy acts as the stand-in for the viewer. At first he is charmed and overwhelmed by the great writer, but the deep divide between his hero's words and his actions slowly work to shift Valentin's sympathies.

Like everyone else, Valentin finds Sofya histrionic, paranoid, and clinging. But he also sees that a woman denied the devotion and affection of her husband, who cannot trust him to consider her best interests, has good reason to act a bit melodramatic. Under the banner of Christianity, Tolstoy preaches love for all mankind but doesn't display it to the woman lying in bed next to him. Instead, he puts his philosophy (and his reputation) above Christ's command to love his wife and allows his collaborator, Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), to scheme against and belittle her.

Unfortunately, McAvoy's character also provides a minor plot that touts a free love approach to sexuality (it also provides the sex scene that accounts for the film's R rating), but this is a minor element. The bulk of The Last Station acts, much like Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, as a cautionary tale about the tragic consequences of serving self over others, particularly within marriage.