Christopher Plummer plays Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station. Photo by Stephan Rabold, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
The Last Station
Written and directed by Michael Hoffman
Starring James McAvoy, Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren and Paul Giamatti
Goes well with: The Last King of Scotland, Shadowlands, The Queen
When we hear the name Tolstoy, we immediately think of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, epic tomes so hefty you can actually kill someone with them, either physically or intellectually. So you should be forgiven for rolling your eyes at a film, sporting top-shelf actors like Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, about the novelist's final days, which took place in a train station in 1910, shortly after he left the wife and daughters who'd been caring for him for years.
Fear not. Michael Hoffman's new film, The Last Station, is no stuffy, highbrow affair. Rather, it works hard to be almost anti-intellectual and, at times, is actually very funny, presenting Tolstoy not as a towering lion of literature but, rather, as an old man amused by all the fuss taking place around him.
Now, Tolstoy is the franchise in The Last Station, but the movie is really about the people who surrounded him late in his life. James McAvoy is Valentin Bulgakov, a young idealist greatly impacted by Tolstoy's work. He interviews for the position of Tolstoy's secretary with Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who heads up the Tolstoyans, a sect of sorts dedicated to Tolstoy's philosophies of non-violence and anti-materialism. And though he's thrilled to get the gig, once he's at Tolstoy's estate, he finds himself pulled in too many directions.
Chertkov is desperate to get Tolstoy to sign over any posthumous royalties to the Russian people. The Countess Tolstoy (Helen Mirren) is desperately lonely and unhappy. Tolstoy simply needs time and space to sort out what he needs. And when Valentin (who himself would, in the fullness of time, become a celebrated playwright) is done with work for the day and returns to his bed amongst the other Tolstoyans, there's Masha (Kerry Condon), who is gorgeous, funny and working hard to convince him not only to leave the drama of Tolstoy's minions behind, but to also ignore his promise of celibacy.
Hoffman's film is nicely shot, and there's a wonderful sense of the ridiculousness of putting a man upon a pedestal while he's still alive. And while The Last Station is still a film about an epic Russian novelist's final days—and some of the trepidation you may have initially experienced is warranted—what sets it apart from the standard, dry period piece is its truly wonderful acting.
The characters are vibrant and real, especially Mirren's Countess Tolstoy. She is a woman who has stood by her man for decades and is now finding herself shunted aside in favor of Giamatti's wormy Chertkov. Sure, his ambitions are noble—he's looking out for the best interest of the Russian people and trying to cement Tolstoy's legacy. But the Countess is still in the here and now, and all she sees is people looming around her frail, aged husband like vultures. But she isn't all stridence and anger—in fact, this is one of the most entertaining roles Mirren has ever played. The Countess is both sympathetic and petulant, and her fights with her husband and Chertkov are equal parts pathetic and scathing.
Plummer is, as always, terrific. He's reached an age where his characters are unlikely to see the credits roll (by my count, his characters survived only about 20 percent of the movies he appeared in last year), and he turns Tolstoy into someone you'd actually want to hang out with—less an intellectual than a tired old man. He understands that his work has importance, carries influence and could have a profound effect upon his countrymen but is being torn between his feelings of responsibility to his family and his people. McAvoy's part is more of a device than anything else, but he's talented and appealing, and his relationship with Masha is as interesting as anything he's watching the gentry around him go through.
It has its slow bits, but the beauty of The Last Station is that even though it's about the creator of War and Peace, the only war and peace that takes place in it are on a human level. It is by no means an epic film, which, if Hoffman got it right, is how Tolstoy would have wanted it.
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