Love is messy. It’s even messier when one person is the founder of a movement that believes in giving all of one’s wealth to the people and the other person wants to keep that wealth for the preservation of their family. This was the conflict between Leo Tolstoy and his wife Sofya, but it’s only the textual conflict of The Last Station. The true conflict is the between true love, with all its ups and downs, passion and betrayal, can survive against noble-yet-indiscriminate love towards mankind. It’s a problem with no easy answers. Should Leo (played by Christopher Plummer) help mankind by giving the copyright to his works over to the public, or should he support Sofya (played by Helen Mirren) and his family and give them the copyright so the family can remain living comfortably for generations. At first the answer seems easy: forego your wealth and what seems like Sofya’s greed and give to the people. But it’s the passion between Leo and Sofya that removes a simple conclusion and keeps the audience conflicted between love for the masses and love between individuals.
The story is told through the eyes of Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) who’s working as a spy on the behalf of Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), Tolstoy’s trusted confidant and fierce advocate of “Tolstoyism”, a Christian-Socialist hybrid that not even Tolstoy truly embraces. Vladimir wants Valentin to document the behavior Sofya and use that documentation against her so he can convince Tolstoy to give his work over to the people. Valentin, also a devoted Tolstoyian, works for Tolstoy at Vladimir’s behest and while he finds himself in awe of the great novelist, he also begins to discover that the tenants of the movement do not coincide with the reality between Leo and Sofya nor does it agree with his feelings for Masha (Kerry Condon) who works on the commune located on Tolstoy’s estate.
Unfortunately, Valentin is the worst part of the film and that’s a big problem since he’s the main character. He’s not a passive observer but nor is he an active player. What should feel like ambivalence and inner turmoil come off like cowardice as he refuses to make a decision and simply follows his most recent order no matter who gave it to him. The only discernable change in his character is that he hesitates longer before doing what he’s told McAvoy’s performance informs us that Valentin knows the right thing to do, but he never sacks up and does it. I couldn’t help but giggle when the closing titles of the film revealed that he eventually became an ardent pacifist following Tolstoy’s death.
What makes the film come alive are the rich performances from Mirren and Plummer. They play thoughtful, complicated characters who, for at least the first two acts of the film, defy the simple categorization of who’s right and who’s wrong. We may not agree with their actions, but we always understand why they’re making them. But as captivating as these actors are, the film’s premise can’t sustain its nearly two-hour runtime. The underlying conflict remains the same and no character shifts the dynamic. The textual conflict also runs dry as the film sides with personal love and simplifies Vladimir from an idealist to a selfish manipulator. This simplification only exacerbates Valentine’s cowardice as it becomes clear what he should do and what he believes is right yet he still abstains from taking a position.
The Last Station never comes together like it should because it starts from a place of strength but rather than lead us deeper and provide us with conflicted feelings about the characters, the film moves towards the clear light of simplicity and not even Mirren and Plummer can keep a hold on the viewer’s interest.