Eve reviews The Last Station at Inside Catholic. Her reaction is very similar to my own, which was not a surprise since I saw it with her and we discussed these very points at some length afterward. (One’s impression of a movie can be greatly affected by who one sees it with…)
It’s kind of funny to me that a couple of commenters on her article suggest that Tolstoy’s problem was that he was a leftist — Deal Hudson compares him to Marx and Rousseau, as someone whose utopian ideas could never square with reality. But I think that the very reason the movie needed to spell out its characters’ ideals is that they don’t fit familiar modern American political categories. People planning earthly utopias don’t go around promoting celibacy, unless their idea of utopia is a world without humans. So why did Tolstoy do it? At one point, Bulgakov paraphrases Tolstoy’s writing as saying the body is an illusion. So what idea of reality are the characters mortifying their flesh for? We’re not told.
I also find myself wondering about the motives of Vladimir Chertkov. The movie portrays him as a sort of Machiavellian villain, but it also says in a postscript that he remained a committed Tolstoyan until his death in the 1930s. Now, at the start of the film we find Chertkov under house arrest, and life for a Tolstoyan wasn’t any easier under the Communists, who literally sent them to Siberia. Machiavelli probably wouldn’t have approved. Meanwhile, Tolstoy’s wife insinuates that he’s homosexual, and is fighting her out of jealousy. That would have interesting implications both for the politics and the celibacy question, but the audience has no way of knowing whether it’s true.
We also have no real way of assessing the Countess’ motives. She says — repeatedly — that the loss of Tolstoy’s copyrights will leave her “starving,” but it’s clear there’s quite a bit of family property apart from the novels. What are the Tolstoys’ finances actually like? Do the children have other means of making a living? The film doesn’t seem interested in these questions, instead framing the issue strictly as whether Tolstoy loves his wife or his ideals more.
This might be a bit much to ask of a two-hour movie. But I do think there was some fat that could have been cut. I felt like we kept watching the Tolstoys have the same argument over and over. Also, the Valentin-Masha affair could have taken up less screen time. In fact, the New York Times’ review of the novel doesn’t even mention Masha, suggesting that if she’s in there at all, she’s a much smaller character. I can’t help thinking that Masha was invented precisely to address the problem I mentioned earlier: no character in the true history really shared the values of the target audience, so somebody has to be in there espousing the gospel of personal liberation. Given what was coming in Russia’s near future, however, I have to wonder how much good it would have done. I sympathize with the movie’s valuing the personal over the political, but sometimes the political is inescapable.