Monday, November 04, 2013

Fixing a Mediocre Movie

If ever it were possible (which it seldom is) for sublime acting to elevate an otherwise unremarkable film to the status of a minor classic, it surely would have happened in the case of The Last Station, the well-intentioned 2009 Tolstoy biopic that brought Oscar and Golden Globe nominations (but no wins) to Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren for their commanding portrayals of Leo and Sofya Tolstoy. The performances were genuinely excellent. Alas, the movie was not. It's fair to ask why not, because on the surface, you'd think any movie about the life of the greatest international celebrity of the 19th century (which Tolstoy surely was) couldn't fail to be a compelling tale. But sadly, like Tolstoy's own final journey by rail, The Last Station falls far short of its ultimate destination, leaving the passenger (the moviegoer) stranded and wanting for a place to hang his or her shapka, so to speak.

The ingredients are there: strong characters, conflict, intrigue, deception, drama. Leo Tolstoy, at age 81, was trying desperately to simplify his increasingly complex professional and family life. He had long since signed over his worldly possessions (including the family estate, Yasnaya Polyana) to the care of his wife. But he also secretly conspired, with the aid of his devoted disciple, Vladimir Grigoryevich Chertkov, to concoct a secret will that would have his literary properties go to the public domain. Of course, Sofya was no fool and saw through her husband's multiple attempts to write her out of the literary inheritance. The Last Station is the story of Sonya's descent into near-madness (and Leo's final, abortive attempt to escape the madness) as Chertkov wrests control of the Tolstoy literary legacy from Sonya. Leo boards a train, at the end, seeking to put physical distance (as much of it as possible) between himself and his wife. By the time he reaches Astapovo, the last station on the rail line, he is deathly ill with pneumonia. His wife arrives at Astapovo just in time to see him die.

The problem with The Last Station, as a movie, is that writer-director Michael Hoffman (working from Jay Parini's novel) chose to give us an extremely narrow snapshot of an enormous subject, more or less like trying to capture the Grand Canyon with a 1952 Brownie camera. The movie not only doesn't try to give us a significant slice of Tolstoy's life, it's actually happy to focus in on just a few weeks (the final weeks) of the great man's story. What's worse, the story is told through the eyes of a rather insignificant character, Tolstoy's replacement secretary (replacing N. N. Gusev, who was for a short time imprisoned), the young Valentin Bulgakov. Along the way, we're made to suffer through Bulgakov's own irrelevant romance with a young woman who's in no way related to Tolstoy (nor any other real-world character).

The movie thus fails on several levels. It fails, first, in not giving us a significant slice of Tolstoy's life. It merely presents the 81-year-old master to us as a world celebrity, ready-made, and expects us to bring significant knowledge of Tolstoy's backstory with us. The movie also distracts us from the main story by (as I said) forcing us to watch an utterly forgettable romantic side-plot that never intersects the main plot. But the movie also fails to show off the true main character of any movie (of whatever scope) about any great Russian writer: namely, Mother Russia herself.

It may be unfair to compare a movie of The Last Station's modest aspirations (and equally modest budget: $17 million) with David Lean's unforgettable cinematic rendition of Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago (which cost $11 million in 1965 dollars), but the fact is, no one who has seen Doctor Zhivago will fail, consciously or unconsciously, to make the comparison in his or her mind between the Lean movie and any subsequent movie involving an iconic Russian figure. The striking thing (one of many) about Doctor Zhivago is that at no time in the movie can the viewer be unaware of the looming presence of that "other main character," bigger than life, Russia herself. Unfortunately, and crucially, we lose that essential character in The Last Station, and without it, the story of Tolstoy's final weeks seems like little more than thin domestic farce.

It's easy to spew out criticism. How to fix it? What could the writer-director have done to rescue The Last Station from the clutches of mediocrity (aside from rewriting it as a stage play)? In particular, how could it have been improved without expanding the story into a Zhivago-like epic spanning the whole of Tolstoy's life?

I think first of all it's necessary (and sufficient, for this limited-budget film) to tell the story of Tolstoy's last ten years, rather than his final year. By dispensing with the trivial Bulgakov character (and his meaningless romance) we save many feet of film that could be better put to use telling the story through the eyes of Tolstoy's personal physician, Dushan Makovitsky, a decidedly pivotal figure in the drama.

The (rewritten) story opens 24 February 1901, at a train station in St. Petersburg, where nameless nobodies come and go, among them a young nobody who, while waiting for his train, carefully (which is to say, first looking to see that no one is watching him) slides a book out of his coat and begins to read it. The book: a copy of Tolstoy's banned The Kingdom of God Is Within You.

A nearby church bell tolls. We cut to the interior of the Cathedral of Our Lady (St. Petersburg) where a grave-looking Metropolitan Anthony ascends the pulpit to read the document officially excommunicating Count Lev Nickolayevich Tolstoy from the Orthodox Church.

Cut to a villa at Gaspra, on the Black Sea. It's September 1901. At the insistence of his physician, Tolstoy has come to Crimea to recuperate from malaria. He's joined at the seaside villa not only by his family but by Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorky. (All of this is true, by the way.)

Chekhov, shaking his head, looks up from his newspaper. "It's been seven months,
Lev Nickolayevich, and they're still writing about the excommunication!"

At the time of his death in 1910, Tolstoy was arguably the
best-known celebrity in the world.

At this point, there is ample room to discuss the reasons for the excommunication. Tolstoy has been writing books and tracts (most famously, The Kingdom of God Is Within You) blasting the church's version of Christianity, putting forth his own no-nonsense, no-miracles, no-hocus-pocus version of the Gospels, emphasizing the Sermon on the Mount and its call for turning the other cheek and repudiating violence. Tolstoy has turned Jesus's teachings against the church, by pointing out that no one who advocates violence (even in a just cause) is adhering to Jesus's teachings.

Tolstoy's own fundamentalism has not only gotten him in hot water with the Church (and the Tsar), it has spawned a Christian anarchism movement that has, by 1901, circled the globe. In Russia, believers in Tolstoy's version of Christianity are refusing military service in significant numbers. In England and elsewhere, acolytes have formed "Tolstoyan colonies." One of Tolstoy's most ardent followers, at home, is (of course) Vladimir Chertkov, who will remain a lifelong disciple, creating the first English-language editions of Tolstoy's works and publishing inexpensive editions of his books both in England and in Russia (resulting in ten years of exile for Chertkov).

Tolstoy's religious fervor, seen by his wife as incomprehensible, is ultimately what powers the bond with Chertkov, the rift with Sofya, and Tolstoy's own mad quest to shed worldly belongings before he dies. By making this aspect of Tolstoy's life clear, The Last Station (properly remade) could give life to the motivations of its characters and make clear why so many Russians considered Tolstoy a living saint.

As part of his creed, Tolstoy advocated celibacy, vegetarianism, and repudiation of worldly goods. He strongly agreed with Proudhon that "property is theft." Once this fact is known, it becomes possible, in a remake of The Last Station, to put Tolstoy's philosophy in historical context. Thus it becomes relevant to include in such a movie a scene (for example) of the 150,000 people who marched on the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in January 1905. These were not card-carrying Bolsheviks but ordinary people, many of whom had been inspired by Tolstoy's (not just Marx's) philosophy.

I can think of many powerful scenes that would make sense in a film that attempts to capture Tolstoy's final decade rather than his final six months of life. By slavishly adhering to Parini's novel, screenwriter-director Hoffman reinquished any opportunity he might have had to do the Tolstoy story justice in The Last Station. We end up with melodrama instead of drama, narrow provinciality instead of sweeping grandeur, and poor Mother Russia herself reduced to a forgotten stepsister, when in fact the stage—like the characters—could not, in this case, have
possibly been any bigger.