What is love?
It’s an appropriate question to encounter on the day before Valentine’s Day, and Saturday afternoon, the question appeared with force in Michael Hoffman’s film, The Last Station, starring Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, and Paul Giamatti. (Spoilers ahead.) The Last Station chronicles the last tumultuous days of the relationship between the famous Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (Plummer) and his wife Sofya (Mirren) as seen through the eyes of one of Tolstoy’s young disciples, Valentin Bulgakov (McAvoy). (Note: Reading Russian novels and plays has never been easy — all those names and variations on names.) Plummer is astounding as the aging prophet of the people, quietly powerful, occasionally rising to match the bluster and force of Mirren’s Sofya. Mirren’s work is seamless, bringing this tortured woman to life with nuance and swift emotional currents that turn quickly according to Sofya’s need and strategy. Valentin’s adoration of Tolstoy and the ideals of love, chastity, purity, and egalitarianism are etched beautifully by McAvoy, his face shining is awe as he meets Tolstoy for the first time. McAvoy plays Valentin’s transformation pitch perfect as he sees first hand the paradoxes of ideals meeting harsher realities, even in the lives of those who dream the ideals. When he writes to his lover Masha at the end of the film, calling her to join him as Tolstoy battles for his life, he says simply, “Heart breaking.” The beauty of it is that this is no revelation, but simply the statement of what McAvoy has been gradually experiencing throughout.
At issue is a will that substantially impacts the future of Tolstoy’s family. Giamatti plays Vladimir Chertkov, Tolstoy’s secretary, and one of the fiercest adherents to a kind of new religion, or social doctrine, based on Tolstoy’s beliefs and writings. Chertkov leads the “Tolstoyans” in a fight to have Tolstoy will the copyrights to his writings to the public, effectively robbing Sofya and Tolstoy’s children of an immense fortune. Both Chertkov and Sofya appeal to Tolstoy on the basis of “love.” The film pits the ideals of Christ’s love for all of humanity, and the demands of that love on behalf of social justice, against the demands and responsibilities of familial love. Who do we care for first and foremost? Our families, providing them with a level of comfort and prosperity that may or may not be needed? Or the poor and the disenfranchised, perhaps creating a situation far less comfortable for our families?
What does Christ’s love demand?
Tolstoy makes his choice, and it is almost more than he can bear. It is certainly more than Sofya can bear, and we see the shattering of individual lives even as perhaps thousands unseen are…saved? Personal sacrifice for the greater good perhaps, but it’s hard (and beautiful) to watch these titans clash and ultimately lose (and yet not) their love. The beauty and power of The Last Station is that it holds onto the private and social paradoxes desperately, refusing to fall into easy choices and preachy platitudes. This is life at its messiest. And perhaps its truest.
So glad I saw it…