The Last Station: movie review
In 'The Last Station,' Leo Tolstoy's domestic life and epic marriage is the story.
Stephan Rabold/Sony Pictures Classics/AP
One of the most difficult achievements for an actor is to realistically portray genius. Too often in the movies we are subjected to great writers or artists in the hammy throes of inspiration. Great artists are regular, plodding people, too. Whatâ€™s more, their greatness is often missed in their own time.
Itâ€™s certainly not true that Count Leo Tolstoy was unrecognized in his day â€“ he was revered as Russiaâ€™s greatest writer â€“ but one of the terrific things about writer-director Michael Hoffmanâ€™s â€śThe Last Stationâ€ť is that, as Christopher Plummer plays him, the old master is, of all things, a recognizable human being. Heâ€™s not an icon, at least not to himself and his adoring, long-suffering wife, Sofya, played with ravenous theatricality by Helen Mirren. The film is about many things â€“ including the rise of quasi-socialist communes devoted to passive resistance that sprang up around Tolstoy in his final days â€“ but itâ€™s finally, and most successfully, about the amorous battle between the count and countess. Married 48 years, these two haul around so much history together that theyâ€™re practically an epic novel all on their own. Theyâ€™re waging a war that seems right out of a novel by, well, Tolstoy.
The ostensible conflict in â€śThe Last Station,â€ť based on a novel by Jay Parini, is between Sofya and Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), Tolstoyâ€™s chief disciple, who believes that the masterâ€™s works rightfully belong to the Russian people. Over Sofyaâ€™s hot-eyed objections, he wants Tolstoy to sign over his writings into the public domain, and, to grease this agenda, he arranges for a young acolyte, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), to become Tolstoyâ€™s assistant. Bulgakov is supposed to be acting as Chertkovâ€™s spy, but most of the time heâ€™s too gaga to provide much useful intelligence. The self-denial implicit in Tolstoyâ€™s neo-Christian, neomystical agrarianism doesnâ€™t jibe with the sensuous world heâ€™s surrounded by â€“ especially in the form of Masha (Kerry Condon), another acolyte with a rather loose sense of self-abnegation.
This Bulgakov-Chertkov narrative is entertaining but also somewhat callow. McAvoy is never entirely convincing â€“ he seems too coltish and contemporaneous to be a true believer circa 1910 â€“ and Giamatti lets his moustache do much of his acting for him. (Heâ€™s one of the few actors who is still worth watching even when heâ€™s overdoing it â€“ Nicolas Cage is another â€“ but Hoffman could still have brought him down a notch.) Even if these scenes were better, they wouldnâ€™t stand up to the Plummer-Mirren grand opera. Every time we are taken away from these two, a terrific movie plummets into OK-ness. (Itâ€™s how I felt watching â€śJulie & Juliaâ€ť every time we switched to Julie.)
Plummerâ€™s Tolstoy, with his big beard and big rheumy eyes, is still startlingly alive in his 80s. The funniest, and truest, joke in the movie is that Tolstoy, despite his philosophical revulsion for worldly things, is irreducibly grounded in earthy pleasures. Heâ€™s as imposing a physical presence as the stout trees that cleave the grounds of his estate.
In her own way, Sofya matches him pound for pound (and line for line). This is a woman who, after all, gave her husband 13 children and, perhaps even more impressive, copied out â€śWar and Peaceâ€ť for him six times. Whether she is staging fainting spells or throwing herself into ponds, Sofya is always intensely aware of the effect she is having on Tolstoy. When he makes his break with her and she follows him, against Chertkovâ€™s admonitions, to his death bed, we can see in their eyes how much love/hate has coursed between them. â€śThe Last Stationâ€ť isnâ€™t all that it should be, but whenever these two actors are onscreen, itâ€™s like a great night at the theater. Grade: A- (Rated R for a scene of sexuality/nudity.)