All utopias are alike; but every utopian is unhappy in his own way.
A new movie, Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station, attempts to portray the last days of Leo Tolstoy, when the great writer had turned from delving into the complexities of individuals’ loves and sorrows to the more streamlined task of issuing treatises on the ideal society. Tolstoy’s vision included many of the usual features: abolition of property, for example, and a rejection of the ornate ritual and complicity of the Orthodox Church in favor of a pristine and astringent Christianity. Celibacy, vegetarianism, and interchangeable roles for men and women completed the revolt against the contemporary order.
One man’s vision became a movement, and, as The Last Station tells it, “Tolstoyism” quickly got out of Tolstoy’s hands, becoming the private property of sycophants and petty dictators. One such specimen, Vladimir Chertkov, wants Tolstoy to rewrite his will, leaving his works in the public domain. Only one small obstacle stands in the way of this noble gesture: the Countess Sofya Tolstoy, the great man’s wife.
And so The Last Station sets up a familiar conflict, in which utopian impulses of universal but abstract brotherhood require the rejection of particular, messy, needy beloveds. The conflict between Leo and Sofya Tolstoy is given a parallel in the romance between the stammeringly virginal Valentin, the secretary who serves as the audience’s stand-in and through whom we’re introduced to the “Tolstoyan” world, and the earthy, frothy Masha, the temptress of Telyatinki commune.
Jesus himself said that following Him would mean putting aside family ties: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” A movie exploring the radical nature of this demand, the way in which God-above-all might mean the disruption of families and friendships, marriages and patriotic loyalties, and all the ordinary ways in which we bind ourselves to one another, could be fascinating. It could challenge our strange belief that Christianity is coterminous with “family values,” with the bourgeois social order. If that movie starred Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, well, we’d have a classic on our hands.
The Last Station is not that movie. It does many things very well: Mirren as Sophya, especially, is an astonishingly charismatic reactionary. Her calculated melodrama, her helplessness against her husband’s will, her anger and the deep love she built with Tolstoy over the decades are all heart-wrenching. She’s allowed a few biting quips and speeches. When Tolstoy spends breakfast explaining why the aristocracy must give their property to the muzhiks, his wife says they’ll only drink it away. She’s defending her privilege (and her children’s) in a deeply unjust system, and yet she’s also the one who notes that the cruelties of czarist Russia can’t be fixed by the hopes and dreams of a titled novelist.
The movie also captures the strange technological moment. A teletype machine sits beside a wax-encrusted candelabra. Tolstoy is followed by paparazzi, who turn his estate of Yasnaya Polyana into a kind of reality-television set. (Archival footage of the real Tolstoys plays during the end credits.)
But overall, the movie reminded me of nothing so much as a classy 1940s period piece. You know the type: all-star cast, medieval or maybe ancient-world setting, 1940s speechifying. Henry V fights Hitler! These movies are great in their way, as moving and enjoyable as The Last Station. But like The Last Station, they seek to reflect and comfort their audience rather than portray a radically different worldview. And so Masha, to pick the most egregious example, rabbits on about love and freedom, sounding more like an idealistic California teenager than a turn-of-the-century Russian radical. In this respect The Last Station is the opposite of Mirren’s other reactionary star turn, when she played Queen Elizabeth II in 2006’s romance-of-decline stunner The Queen.
The Last Station is set in a closed society: a dictatorship. Telyatinki isn’t a hippie haven or a trustafarian group house, because it exists in a society where there are still peasants. There’s one subtle scene in which Hoffman may be alluding to these outside conditions: When Valentin first arrives at Telyatinki, he refuses to say a critical word about the commune’s obviously pustulent leader. Only Masha’s boldness prompts any kind of honesty. Yet this scene is the only one that even hints that growing up in a world of czars and peasants would constrain one’s imagination, stoke one’s paranoia, or bridle one’s tongue. And even here, Valentin’s reticence is portrayed as primarily a matter of his milquetoast personality, and only secondarily or symbolically a matter of his social position.
There’s too little of everything here. If your movie is about the clash between ideals and personal loves, tell me about the ideals! Hoffman only gestures at the content of Tolstoy’s Christianity.
Moreover, although Sofya’s protection of her children’s inheritance is supposedly one major motive for her actions, her children are divided among themselves, and we never get to know them very well, so the mother-child bond is peripheral to the movie. This leaves only romantic relationships to bear the entire weight of the anti-utopian case. No friendships are torn apart; we don’t see a father’s estrangement from his daughter. This exclusive focus on boy-meets-girl weakens the movie thematically and flattens out both Leo’s and Sofya’s characters.
But boy-meets-girl is also the one thing the movie does most spectacularly right. Although there are no flashbacks, no montages, we apprehend the entire sweep of the Tolstoys’ marriage. We glimpse the early squabbles and the sense that here two people have found in one another their soul mates. We see the cruelty and the despair of their last year together. We see their longing and their fury.
The Last Station is a deeply flawed movie. It does not live up to its Christian-symbolic title. It has too much of 2010 and not enough of Tolstoy.But it does do one thing: It shows two people who can’t escape one another. It shows the shackles of wedlock — and the love that forges them.