A melodramatic account of the tempestuous final year of Leo Tolstoy’s life, “The Last Station” is solid middlebrow biographical fare in which meaty roles are acted to the hilt by a cast more than ready for the feast. Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren shine as an aged but still passionate couple at odds over the disposition of the great Russian novelist’s legacy, a dispute rife with personal jealousy as well as ideology. Conventional presentation will make for splintered critical reaction, but this easily digestible period piece trades in the sort of dramatic fireworks that, given devoted marketing, could generate a respectable following with an older portion of the general audience.
Story’s general dynamics are easy to grasp. In his energetic old age — in 1910, he’s still writing and riding horseback — the most revered author of his time (Plummer) lives on a grand if disorderly country estate and presides from a distance over a quasi-political cult in which young adherents do farm labor while trying to adhere to tenets of Tolstoyan philosophy such as pacifism, social equality, vegetarianism and celibacy, rules the lusty old man personally admits difficulty in adhering to.
The central issue at home, however, is the status of Tolstoy’s will as regards the custody of his literary estate. Long assumed to be the provenance of his wife, the Countess Sofya (Mirren), it’s now being claimed by Tolstoy’s chief disciple, Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), as the rightful property of the Russian people. Very close, he believes, to getting the old man to sign away his life’s work to the public domain, Chertkov engages the fastidious, worshipful young Valentin (James McAvoy) to become the writer’s new assistant and Chertkov’s spy, obliged to record and report everything said in the fraught household.
Writer-director Michael Hoffman, working from a novel by Jay Parini, keeps things bustling in the busy household and wrings droll humor from the way Tolstoy’s most innocuous remarks are all recorded by slavish transcribers, while numerous cameramen are posted outside to document his movements for all time (some real-life snippets are played with the end titles). The awestruck Valentin is warmly welcomed by the writer, who, in Plummer’s seductive, appealingly naturalistic performance, instantly emerges as a real man, not as a self-important legend. This Tolstoy does not need his ego bolstered by flatterers and sycophants; well aware of his status, he turns attention back on those around him. There is, impressively, virtually no ham in Plummer’s work here, just stature and humanity.
Tolstoy loves his wife, but she occupies another realm altogether. A devotee of Italian opera, she adores melodrama and injects it into her daily life whenever she believes it applies, which is often. She has given her husband 13 children in their 48-year marriage and helped him immeasurably with his work, copying out “War and Peace” six times. So she seems justifiably pained by her husband’s willingness to be influenced by his “boyfriend” Chertkov, who, in his zealous rigidity, seems a picture-perfect premature communist ideologue as he brands the countess a bourgeois crazy woman.
Threaded between this pitched battle is Valentin’s struggle to remain a pure Tolstoyan, a battle he loses shortly after meeting the writer’s hedonistic daughter Masha (Kerry Condon) at the commune. After the initial seduction, however, their relationship becomes rather rote and uninteresting.
While Tolstoy tries to get on with work and ignore the circus swirling around him, Sofya acts out, fainting, falling into a pond and, most successfully, seducing her husband all over again. She’s a lusty, mercurial, demonstrative and intelligent woman, a perfect fit for Mirren, who fleshes out those traits and more with judicious abandon. As always, Giamatti and McAvoy are good to have around, albeit here they’re stuck with one-dimensional roles, the former as a (literally) moustache-twirling conspirator, the latter as a naif with life lessons to learn.
Climactic passages are undeniably potent, as the nation’s most famous man passes into history with a full measure of final-act histrionics from Sofya, all played to the balcony. Pic is not unintelligent, just massaged and popularized for mass consumption.
Shot on location in Germany, the film is handsome to look at and nicely outfitted all around, and is dedicated to the late Anthony Quinn. There must be some backstory there.