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The Last Station explores the last days of Leo Tolstoy
By Bruce Bellingham

Leo Tolstoy, who was one of the first big literary celebrities, finally decided to leave his wife, Sophya, when he was 82 years old. Tired of their endless fighting, he simply got on a train and ran away. Stopping at a train station in the south of Russia, he found himself too ill to continue his adventure. So Sophya pursued Leo, where there was a dramatic – more like histrionic – scene. Sophya was the ultimate long-suffering wife.

Director Michael Hoffman, who was in town last month, says he wanted to make a film out of Jay Parini’s novel since he first read it in 1990. “But when I heard that Helen Mirren was interested in playing Sophya, I knew we were in business,” said Hoffman.

Christopher Plummer plays Tolstoy. The screen crackles and smolders when he and Mirren do their scenes. The cast also includes the wonderfully insecure Paul Giamatti and Kerry Condon (who was a big hit in the HBO series Rome). James McAvoy portrays Tolstoy’s personal secretary who gets embroiled in the household politics, Tolstoy’s freethinking commune, and Sophya’s ornate mind games, playing the characters off each other to keep Tolstoy in her sphere of influence. She’s fighting for her life.

The film was shot in Germany, not Russia. Hoffman said the conditions in rural Russia are just too rough. Ironically, Tolstoy seems to be more popular today outside of Russia than he is in his
native country.

“In the post-Soviet era,” Hoffman explained,” “there are discussions about what is really Russian today and what is not. The Soviets embraced Tolstoy for his utopian vision. But many think he’s not all that ‘Russian.’”

All of the characters in The Last Station are so interesting and perplexing as they calibrate their own agendas. But watching Plummer and Mirren is just downright fun. It’s certainly one of the best films of the year. Sergey Yevtushenko must be given special mention for the terrific score.

The Last Station: at the Embarcadero Center Cinema, One Embarcadero Center (near Battery), 415-267-4893,; and the Balboa Theatre, 3630 Balboa (at 38th), 415-221-8184,


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