Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Tolstoy Lite

I fell under the spell of Tolstoy when I was a senior in high school. It started when Mayama's bookstore in the Park Forest Plaza closed. All the books were deeply discounted, and I took my babysitting money and did my first serious bookbuying.

My family was strictly a library family. We had a large bookshelf full of children's books, which was added to over the years because my mother became a nursery school teacher. Those were books to be read and reread, the logic went. As for adults, what was the point in owning books? You only read them once and you were done. Aside from a shelf of my father's old college books in the basement, an untouched collection of Reader's Digest Condensed Books we'd acquired through gift subscriptions and some coffee-table books on display in the living room, our house was bereft of books.

I remember what I bought very clearly. I bought a large Bible that was filled with illustrations by Rembrandt, including a loose print of his portrait of Jesus which was the only thing I really wanted (and which I hung in my dorm room all four years), and a Modern Library hardcover edition of Anna Karenina.

I sitll have that copy of Anna Karenina (and my grandmother loved the "large print" Bible in her final years). It's pages were like porcelain. I loved it like a physical object, for the beauty of the type, for the simplicity of the cover, and I also loved the story, particularly the story of Kitty and Levin. I devoured it, and when I was done I moved on to War and Peace, which I read the summer before I went to college. That Grinnell had a whole course in Tolstoy was really too much good fortune to be believed, and so when I took it I got to read them both again. That the amazing John Mohan taught the course was icing on the cake of my lifelong love of Tolstoy and what Isaiah Berlin called his "big, baggy monsters." To this date, I'd have to say that was the best class I took in college.

So I was probably too excited about The Last Station. It is possible my hopes were too high. And I was disappointed. However, I was also aware of just how much the director and writer had to work with, and really, I would have been happy if they'd done any of it. This film, with excellent acting by Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, was not big, and in the end felt like a real missed opportunity.

The story is simple: the great author, essayist and idealist Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, with paparazzi recording his every move, in 1910, has become an icon (first time that word actually fit the context, as they are making an illuminated saint of him!). He lives at his estate, Yasnaya Polyana, where his wife, the Countess Sofia Andreevna, struggles to keep his attention and to protect his legacy, namely the copyright to his books, which he is being convinced to sign over "to the Russian people" (i.e., public domain). Tolstoy is not just a writer, he is the (reluctant) leader of a movement; the Tolstoyans are a nature-loving, peasant-imitating group of bourgeois kids, who have shed the trappings of religion and other institutions and are after simplicity, equality and a good life on the land. They're ensconced on a plot of land that they run like a commune. The other major character, his secretary, played by James McEvoy, is our guide through the situation.

What I wanted was to see Tolstoy's relationship with the peasants and the land. OR, let us see the fiery anarchists and how their extremism is destructive and/or hypocritical and/or valiant. Let me see Tolstoy's wisdom and thought, his commitment and ideology. Or let me see his wife's decadence and how he figures out a way to distance himself from it. Or let it be a foreshadowing to what was coming in 1917, a critique of class envy turning to class warfare.

In the end, the filmmakers showed us a complex, unhappy marriage between two people who were nonetheless devoted to each other. Manipulation on a small and petty scale. Intrigue that was really not very intriguing. And don't ask me anything about peasants or Tolstoyan thought. These Tolstoyans were a grumpy bunch who didn't seem to have much of a program and seemed happy to abandon it at the first sight of a pretty girl. There is NO celibacy or even struggle with celibacy in this film, though much is made of it in the promotional materials and early discussion of Tolstoyanism. All in all, a surprisingly passionless bunch all around.

I recognized some of the great details of the notoriously conflicted marriage-- mostly having to do with diaries and a game of initials they played when they first met.  But there was no grand arc, no symbols, no complex intertwined stories, and despite the beauty, not a whole lot of life, in the film. It was so un-Tolstoyan!

Still, you have to see it-- the costumes are gorgeous and the acting is first rate. And it's unlikely we'll get another film set at Yasnaya Polyana for a long, long time.

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