Magazine article The New Yorker

Love Hurts

Magazine article The New Yorker

Love Hurts

Article excerpt

In "The Last Station," Christopher Plummer, at the crest of a long career, gives an impassioned portrait of the artist as an old man--Leo Tolstoy in his eighties, imposing, stentorian, and almost alarmingly active. Helen Mirren, letting her age show and still the most sexual actress onscreen, is his equal as Sofya, Tolstoy's wife of forty-eight years. Like Tolstoy, Sofya is built along heroic, Old Testament lines: she has borne him thirteen children; she has copied out "War and Peace" in longhand six times; she has run his household and loves him as passionately as ever. Based on Jay Parini's 1990 novel, which draws heavily on diaries kept by the couple and by other men and women in their circle, this production, directed by Michael Hoffman, is like a great night at the theatre--the two performing demons go at each other full tilt and produce scenes of Shakespearean affection, chagrin, and rage.

The year is 1910, and Tolstoy is an uneasy survivor in the new century--he's bemused by a phonograph playing in his garden at Yasnaya Polyana. (A fine old house in Germany doubles as the estate.) As he approaches death, he and Sofya fight over his will. Shall he leave the vastly profitable copyrights of his worldly masterpieces to his wife and their children? Or shall he bequeath them to the "Russian people," to be administered by an organization that propagates his late-in-life obsessions--a cultish neo-Christian, neo-socialist religion that runs communes, advocates passive resistance to violence, and renounces sexuality? Sofya's nemesis in the struggle is Tolstoy's chief disciple and administrator, the fanatical Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who introduces into the estate a youthful spy, Valentin (James McAvoy), a celibate and an avowed Tolstoyan, who becomes the writer's secretary. He's so awed that he can barely get a word out when he and Tolstoy first meet, but his disapproval of the flesh disappears overnight after Masha (Kerry Condon), a terrifically flirtatious and intelligent fellow-acolyte, climbs into his bed. Hoffman makes the scenes between the young lovers genuinely erotic, so it's not hard to guess which side the movie chooses in the philosophical dispute between asceticism and sensuality. Hoffman doesn't parody Tolstoy's religious and pedagogical beliefs, which, after all, exerted a major influence on Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., yet the movie implicitly suggests that exalted, self-denying spirituality, however noble, is less powerful as a guide to living than everyday love. Tolstoy, no fanatic in his own cause, seems to know this. In a beautifully written scene, played with wistful longing by Plummer, the old man, talking to Valentin as they sit together in the forest at Yasnaya Polyana, describes the early years of his marriage as a kind of terrifying paradise.

Hoffman's career has wandered all over the place--he made the uproarious pop comedy "Soapdish," in 1991, and a mediocre "Midsummer Night's Dream," in 1999. In this movie, he achieves a new expressiveness, fluidity, and power. "The Last Station" may not be original in form, but it's vibrantly alive, with many scenes of scathing directness that seem to come straight out of Russian novels (though the pitch of feeling is closer to Dostoyevsky's hyperthyroid manner than to Tolstoy's firmer, calmer tone). The juiciest material is Sofya's detestation of Chertkov, whose celibacy she suspects is really just a cover for homosexuality. In any case, she's sure that he's a poseur and an opportunist, disguising his self-seeking with a veneer of piety. And for her Tolstoy's anti-sensual bent is rubbish--this is a man of huge lusts, who showed her his diaries of youthful whoring before their wedding. Sofya's situation is pitiable: she still wants her husband sexually, and will do anything to lure him back to bed and destroy his ideological purity. Helen Mirren may be the only actress who can beg for sex without losing a ferocious pride. Her Sofya, dressed in white like a bride, her hair long and full, makes scenes, howls, and gets thrown about by her own anger and desire like a rag doll in a storm. …

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