Unhappy Families 

Exploring Tolstoy's Home Life in The Last Station

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WHILE THE EXPRESSION "behind every great man is a great woman" has rightfully fallen into disuse, The Last Station is based on just such a historical formulation: the turbulent relationship between Leo Tolstoy and his wife, Sofya. This, though, is no tale of stoic devotion, of wifey tending the fires while her husband is out sowing his genius. Sofya Tolstoy (fiercely portrayed by Helen Mirren), is indeed devoted to her husband—they've been married for 50 years, during which time she's served as his supporter and secretary, famously copying multiple drafts of War and Peace by hand. She is also utterly determined to see his legacy preserved, in a manner that befits both of their labors.

Toward the end of his life, Leo (Christopher Plummer) gets religion—of the back-to-the-land, renounce worldly goods, vegetarianism-and-celibacy variety—an affection his wife finds completely unsupportable. The last straw comes when this newfound asceticism, encouraged by his slimy disciple Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), prompts Leo to consider turning over the copyrights to his novels to the Russian people—to make them common property from which his family could no longer receive royalties.

As Chertkov and Sofya vie for control of Leo's legacy, Leo's secretary Valentin (James McAvoy) is caught in the middle. Moreover, Valentin is torn between his desire to live in accordance with the principles of Tolstoy's new religion, and his attraction to a pretty fellow Tolstoy acolyte, Masha (Kerry Condon).

The wan relationship between Valentin and Masha can't compete with Leo and Sofya's grand, crumbling passion, depicted with unerring emotional precision by Plummer and Mirren. As Tolstoy's health worsens, the disputes over his legacy become ever more pressing, and Sofya makes increasingly frantic bids to reassert her waning influence over her husband, from calculated seduction to showy suicide attempts. In Leo's retreat from the world, and Sofya's desperate attempts to keep him in it, The Last Station resonates as far more than just a quibble about copyrights.

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