The Last Station

Caroline Connor falls in love with Tolstoy for Valentine's Day in the unexpectedly romantic The Last Station

I’m not a big fan of Valentine’s Day. I’m getting married later this year, and so I should make an effort to mark the day with my husband-to be, but I really can’t be bothered.

The way I choose to bury my head in the sand this year is to go to Queen's Film Theatre and catch The Last Station – a film with an impressive cast including Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, Paul Giamatti, James McAvoy and Anne-Marie Duff. What I didn’t expect, was to be thoroughly absorbed and entertained by a film with love at its very core.

The Last Station charts the last year in Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s life. Tolstoy, played by Plummer, has renounced his noble title, his property and even his family, in favour of poverty and vegetarianism.

His adoring followers, the Tolstoyans, live by his principles with great fervour and the most faithful of these followers, Tolstoy’s friend and confidante Chertkov (Giamatti) is adamant that the writer’s fortune should be bequeathed to the Russian people, not his family.

Tolstoy has been married to his wife, the Countess Sofya, (Mirren) for almost 50 years. The pair have a passionate love/hate relationship, but she remains his muse and secretary – much to the chagrin of the Tolstoyans, who believe she distracts and manipulates the writer in order to gain what is rightfully hers.

Her relationship with Chertkov is especially strained, and the pair vie for Tolstoy’s attention and ultimately, fortune.

At the heart of this film is love. Although Tolstoy and Sofya have a volatile relationship, we see moments of tenderness between them and the very thing that they hate about each other is actually what they treasure the most – their humour, their compassion and their personality. Sofya has been a devoted wife to Tolstoy and for her to see Chertkov lay claim to what is rightfully hers, is heartbreaking.

Tolstoy and Sofya endure a difficult marriage – not only does the Countess have to ‘share’ her husband with his legions of followers, but in true Brangelina style, they are hounded by paparazzi and every word and episode is recorded by either a journalist or a Tolstoyan. The strain placed on them, and particularly on the Countess, by this fame inevitably widens any cracks in their relationship.

Mirren and Giamatti make wonderful enemies. Mirren’s Countess is witty, firey and compassionate. She is mischievous – pretending to fall ill to get Tolstoy’s attention, and eavesdropping on Tolstoy’s meetings with Chertkov – but ultimately with her husband’s well-being to the fore.

Giamatti’s character is cold and comes across as soulless – he is completely devoted to Tolstoy as a disciple but views the writer’s principles in a very formulaic way – as if love can be taught in the same way as a maths equation.

The obvious dislike between Sofya and Chertkov makes for uncomfortable scenes involving the pair.

Christopher Plummer is barely recognisable as a bearded Tolstoy, although he has created a lovely character. Tolstoy, like the Countess, has a quick wit but exudes great warmth for his family and his followers.

The entire film is a delight from start to finish, the quality of both the writing and the acting so high that it’s almost a disappointment when the film ends. Stunning locations in Germany add to the tranquillity and peace of Tolstoy’s world and only serve to juxtapose against the cold determination in which the Tolstoyans follow their master.

Ultimately, it is the relationships in the film which are the most touching. Like Anna Karenina, Tolstoy and Sofya’s love for each other is an epic love story, and it is their affection for each other that truly illustrates the true meaning behind the writer’s principles.

The love portrayed in The Last Station is more touching and sincere than any Valentine’s card ever could ever be.


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