Friends: One of the hits of the recent Telluride Film Festival, "The Last Station," about the last year of Tolstoy's life, intrigued me enough to search out the 1990 novel by Jay Parini it was based on when I returned to Chicago. The Chicago Public library system had six copies and only one was checked out. When the movie opens there ought to be a long waiting list for those books.
The movie stars Helen Mirren as Tolstoy's incessantly nagging wife. She is concerned that Tolstoy, played by Christopher Plummer, has altered his will to leave the rights to his books to the public domain, rather than to her. Tolstoy renounced his life of luxury and privilege in his later years, something his wife did not wish to go along with. Their marriage of 48 years has deteriorated into non-stop bickering. Tolstoy can no longer take it and flees their country estate by train despite his faltering health. He takes refuge at a train station, where he dies, thus the title of the book and the movie.
The chapters of the book are alternately written by its main characters--Tolstoy, his wife, one of their daughters, Tolstoy's doctor, Tolstoy's young secretary and Tolstoy's chief advisor, played by Paul Giametti. The advisor and Tolstoy's wife are arch adversaries, each wishing to have their way with Tolstoy.
The movie is much more faithful to the novel than many such adaptions are, though it is not without some blatant alterations making it more palatable for mainstream audiences. Tolstoy's young, recently hired secretary is a nervous sort who sneezes whenever he has a case of the nerves, a cheap cinema ploy that the book didn't resort to. Tolstoy's wife is so incensed that he seems more loyal to his advisor than to her she occasionally accuses him of being homosexual in the book, though there is not a hint of that in the movie.
The author of the novel, Parini, says that most of those close to Tolstoy kept diaries and that he used them in his research. How faithful the book and the movie are to reality will no doubt be thoroughly discussed when this movie is released. Mirren is the movie's star. She said that of all the roles she has played, she only enjoyed one more--Elizabeth the First. Her performance could earn her another Oscar nomination.
There were no bicycles in either the book or the movie, even though Tolstoy has achieved a niche in bicycle lore similar to Einstein. They were both drawn to the bicycle in their later years, recognizing its great utility and many exemplary qualities. There are much published photos of both of them tottering along in glee astride a bicycle. Someone even wrote a book "Tolstoy and His Bicycle."