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Ascetic Love 

The Last Station, covering the final year of Tolstoy’s life, highlights the struggle between natural impulses and restraint

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Leo Tolstoy and his wife — they shoulda signed a pre-nup. Because all they do during The Last Station, an account of the final year in the Russian novelist’s life, is bicker over whether the rights to his literary output will go to Sofia and their children or to all the people in Russia.

Their disagreement, which has big ramifications for the international Tolstoyan movement circa 1910, may sometimes seem like a marital spat in director Michael Hoffman’s film and is, on occasion, played for comedy. (Here’s Dame Helen Mirren creeping along a balcony. Here’s Mirren falling into a room, swathed in the curtains and in her own righteous, risible indignation.)

Hoffman’s fine movie, served by an exceptional cast, has the weakness of focusing insistently on the squabble over the rights, overextending and dispersing its impact. Oh, there are subplots, as in any comedy of manners — the scheming villain (Paul Giamatti), the naif in love (James McAvoy, seduced by Kerry Condon while serving as audience-surrogate). But Hoffman’s adaptation of Jay Parini’s novel keeps probing at the legacy when there’s so much more we’d like to know about the man and his society.

The ensemble, however, acts superlatively — and never more than when we peer into the elderly Tolstoys’ bedroom. The film’s epigraph, from War and Peace — “Everything I know, I know only because I love” — is soon followed by Tolstoy’s wife Sofia (Mirren) crawling into bed and looking for love, only to be met by the distinguished literary giant’s snoring. Mirren’s performance — like the film at large — focuses on the search for love and affection.

Later on, with her hair hanging loose about her shoulders, Mirren luxuriates in bed, splaying her limbs and giggling with anticipation. Old Lev Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer; the film uses the more correct “Lev” instead of the popular “Leo”) totters in — his beard flowing over his plain sleeping gown. (Everything about him is plain. He has rejected private property and all worldly things.) She teases him, seduces and cajoles him, calling herself his “little chick.” “No, no,” he mutters — this leader of the Tolstoyans who has preached sexual abstinence — he’s angry with her. But he smiles. “Let me hear you sing,” she intones, and — in what’s clearly a lovers’ childish game, he cock-a-doodle-doo’s for her, grinning like an imp and falling into her arms. “I want you to love me, I do,” she says, and the sounds of their love-making resound all over their estate. Everything they know, they know because they love.

The last station of the title is death, but in this narrowly focused but superlatively well-acted film, Tolstoy’s influence will live on for new readers, just as his passive-resistance ideas later influenced Gandhi and King. The rights to Lev Tolstoy’s work turned out to belong to everyone after all.

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