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The Last Station

March 31, 2010

While searching for a movie to see the other night I stumbled upon “The Last Station”, a biographical film about Leo Tolstoy in the last year of his life. I was surprised that I hadn’t heard about it before since Tolstoy is one of my favorite authors and it was nominated for two Academy Awards this past year. The movie stars Christopher Plummer as a down-to-earth Lev Tolstoy and Helen Mirren as his passionate wife, Sofya. The plot is based on the 1990 novel of the same name by Jay Parini and chronicles the conflicted time in Tolstoy’s life when his newly adopted political beliefs collided with his personal life and his wife’s lifelong devotion to him.

Tolstoy composed the masterpieces of War and Peace and Anna Karenina shortly after his marriage to Sofya in 1862, a happy time where she acted as his proof-reader, hand copying the entire manuscript of War and Peace several times by hand. In the movie, Tolstoy recounts how he felt Sofya could almost read his mind when they first met and she claimed to be the only one who could decipher his handwriting. However, in the later years of his life, Tolstoy came to believe that his inherited wealth and privilege as a member of the nobility were corrupting forces and that true morality could only be achieved through hard work and loving thy neighbor. He adopted a stance of passive resistance and anarchism, rejecting the Orthodox Church and any form of government as well as private property. As his beliefs became more radical, they alienated him from Sofya, who could not understand why he would want to destroy all the work they had done together by passing the copyright of his writing to the public and thereby not providing for his eight children in her eyes. As their opposing views come head to head, scenes of fiery anger alternate with tender moments of reconciliation until Tolstoy makes the decision that will take him away from Sofya and his family home forever.

You don’t have to be a Tolstoy fan to appreciate the questions this movie raises about loving someone so different from yourself and the conflicting desire to transcend the bonds of our emotions while recognizing that perhaps life is not worth living without them. A.O. Scott’s review of the film is here. The trailer can be viewed here.

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