The Last Station: Poor Sofia Tolstoy

This rather good-looking film was surprisingly tiresome, but I could not be quite sure why until I read some stuff about the last days of the Tolstoy marriage.

One obvious problem with the movie is that it has patches of what I think was supposed to be comedy. These moments of skippiness undermined what little claim the effort had to capture what seems to have been the true awfulness of the Tolstoys’ later life together.

The greater difficulty is that the film treated nearly everyone as rather lightweight and even trivial. The tyro male secretary is sweet but naive and ineffectual. Tolstoy is a dithery old duffer.

The ur-Tolstoyan Chertkov is portrayed as a mincing, grasping, manipulative acolyte who succeeds in getting Tolstoy to sign over his copyrights in the new will which is the pivotal concern of the story. The movie floats two possibilities, I think. One is that Chertkov is seeking his private interest in this deal, and the other is that he is more obviously an idealist, who is seeking to put Tolstoy’s writing in the public domain, free of commercial taint (though maybe with fresh power for Chertkov as a sort of literary executor). Neither of these options is hugely attractive, granted that we have grown at least vestigially fond of Sofia and concerned for her well-being.

A little research reveals that Chertkov was actually quite a considerable publisher in his own right. So he wasn’t the almost comic moralising chancer the film shows us. Further reading suggests that Chertkov actually persuaded Tolstoy to assign his copyrights to first one daughter of the marriage and then, later, another. These women were perhaps idealist Tolstoyans, and close to Chetkov, but – contrary to the film’s thesis – Chertkov emerges as less nakedly selfish or aridly ideological in his actions than we are supposed to believe him to be.

The more one reads about Countess Tolstoy (say in Nikolai Tolstoy’s The Tolstoys) the more one feels that she was a serious figure driven to the brink of craziness by her bizarre situation, married to a man of whom the best that can be said is that he was made cruel by principle. The movie doesn’t take us there. I don’t know where the fault lies (in Helen Mirren’s portrayal or in the production’s assumptions or bits of both), but we have a portrayal of Sofia in which she is a bit too silly to be fully engaging. I can’t quite decide whether I think the film’s Tolstoy is rich enough, but I feel pretty sure its Sofia is far too shallow.

Perhaps Alexandra Popoff’s forthcoming biography of the countess will put us straight.

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Publication date

04 April 2010

Categories

On movies