The Last Station: More war than peace in Tolstoy's final days
BY LYNN VENHAUS - For the News-Democrat
Sparks ignite and catch fire as Oscar nominees Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren portray Russian author Leo Tolstoy and Sofya, his bipolar wife of 48 years, during a rocky patch before his death at age 82.
The verbal dexterity so nimbly displayed by the two British greats elevates "The Last Station" from a literary-based soap opera as sudsy as a contemporary "Dynasty."
The time is 1910. Tolstoy is the most famous author in the world, and a movement advocating his philosophy of pacifism and poverty is flourishing. A commune-type farm on the property of his once opulent estate is populated by followers known as Tolstoyans.
James McAvoy plays Valentin Bulgakov, a wide-eyed innocent attracted to those utopian ideals who is hired as Tolstoy's secretary. He learns quickly that his dream job is a double-edged sword. He has become a pawn in a smackdown between Tolstoy's trusted publisher, Vladmir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who is also the leader of the Tolstoy Society, and the manipulative countess.
In other words, there is more war than peace in Tolstoy's final days. The lusty fireworks between Plummer and Mirren are silly and sublime at the same time, and they vividly punctuate the Tolstoys' complicated relationship.
Giamatti, however, practically steals the movie as the conniving disciple who cajoles Valentin into spying on the Tolstoys' home life. Chertkov wants to wrestle control of Tolstoy's copyrights from his family to the Russian people.
The countess, trying to protect what is hers, wages a battle royale. She is a full-fledged drama queen, and doesn't help her case as she becomes more prickly and histrionic.
But time is running out as fragile family bonds fray and Tolstoy falls ill.
An under-developed subplot involving the amiable McAvoy with a fellow Tolstoy devotee (Kerry Condon of HBO's "Rome") doesn't serve the story well, merely fuels the chastity debate that Tolstoy himself confesses he can't follow.
Writer-director Michael Hoffman, who based the script on Jay Parini's book, presents an interesting conflicted world, a few years before the Bolshevik Revolution would drastically alter Russia.
But "The Last Station" will be remembered for its tour-de-force acting. Mirren, Oscar winner for "The Queen" and acknowledged for this role, is the silver screen's reigning grand dame. She is matched by Plummer, who nabbed his first Oscar nomination after a career spanning five decades. Now 79, Plummer appeared in more movies last year in supporting roles than actors half his age.
They effortlessly give young Hollywood a master class.