I watched The Last Station (a film based on the German biographical novel of the same name by Jay Parini) on the plane while coming back from the San Diego I Can Do It! conference in May. What a beautifully acted, beautifully filmed, true story! The film focuses on the hugely successful and influential Count Leo Tolstoy and his last years. He is surrounded by zealous young disciples (known as Tolstoyans) who are driven to create a utopian society based on equality, love, and work. Materialism and sex are eschewed for higher values. The leader of the Tolstoyan movement, Vladimir Chertkov, portrayed by Paul Giamatti, feels strongly that the copyright to Tolstoy’s work should belong to the people for the betterment of the movement. Meanwhile, Countess Sofya Tolstoy, beloved wife of 48 years, wants to keep the rights—and income—for her family and her future. After all, she helped Tolstoy write the books and devoted her life to him and their children.
Thus the stage is set between the abstract good of mankind versus the good of Tolstoy’s personal family. And this conflict is seen through the eyes of the young idealist Valentin Bulgakov, played by James McAvoy, who was so brilliant in movie The Last King of Scotland about Idi Amin. Bulgakov was hired by Chertkov as Tolstoy’s secretary. The aging Tolstoy, very much a flawed human, is seemingly forced to choose between the good of his family and the public good. (Frankly, I don’t see why there couldn’t have been some kind of compromise between both parties—but hey, I’m a Libra! And besides, that’s not what actually happened. It was a black and white, all or nothing decision!)
The portrayal of a legendary couple, very much in love but a product of their times, was brought home clearly in this movie. Tolstoy ultimately wielded the most power and had the last word. He was also the most susceptible to having his ego stroked by his devotees, particularly Chertkov, who (to me) represents the cold, calculating intellect devoid of feeling. Meanwhile Sofya had to resort to all kinds of histrionics (which were well-documented at the time) in order to make her point of view heard by the man she adored and to whom she had devoted her life!
The character Valentin Bulgakov, the personal secretary, is at the very heart of the movie. At one point, he has finally allowed himself to fall in love with a flesh and blood woman, as opposed to an ideal. Chertkov dismisses this love as something inferior to the cause. Bulgakov, who is finally starting to see things clearly, replies, “I have never met ‘mankind.’ I’ve only met imperfect men and women.” I wanted to stand up and cheer when I heard this line. Cults, movements, and fundamentalism of all kinds rob us of our humanity. But a clear human heart can see through all this to the truth. And that truth is beautifully portrayed and acted in The Last Station.