The Last Station
A film about the final days of Russian author Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace, Anna Karenina) may sound like a bore to the average moviegoer, and indeed, The Last Station is admittedly a very bookish, Merchant-Ivory, costume-drama sort of film. But it's also utterly engrossing, superbly acted, and full of ideas about life and love that ring true and hit hauntingly close to home.
Directed by Michael Hoffman (The Emperor's Club), Station tells the story of Tolstoy's final year, but even though it's a film about the end of a life, it's certainly far from a tragic or even melancholy tale. But it's definitely dramatic. Rather than living out his final days in peace and quiet, Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), a worldwide celebrity and iconic figure, finds himself in the middle of vicious battles between warring factions within his own household. His wife Sofya (Helen Mirren) demands his loyalty to the family and maneuvers to make certain that his will provides plenty of financial security for the family. At odds with Sofya is Tolstoy's right-hand-man Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), the head of the worldwide Tolstoyan movement (a sort of utopian Christian anarchism). He wants Tolstoy to donate his estate to "the movement" (even the copyright of his books), to ensure the Tolstoyan legacy. Sofya wants her husband to honor his family, while Chertkov wants Tolstoy to honor his ideals.
Also in the mix is Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), a wide-eyed young devotee who joins a Tolstoyan commune and becomes Tolstoy's personal secretary—"planted" by Chertkov to spy on the conniving shenanigans of Sofya within the Tolstoy household. While a member of the commune (which, among other things, requires celibacy), Valentin meets a pretty girl, Masha (Kerry Condon), who tests his devotion to the ideals he so admires. This "young" relationship between Valentin and Masha provides a fresh, passionate, equally conflicted thematic complement to that of their older counterparts—Sofya and Leo Tolstoy. As the aging lovers work through very human, relational tensions, so too do the young couple. Part of the charm of this film is the multi-generational, timeless quality to what it says about love. Everyone will be able to recognize it.
But make no mistake: this film is chiefly about the turbulent relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Tolstoy. Plummer and Mirren are as good as it gets, hitting all the right notes of passion, pain, love, and laughter. They are believable as a couple married for nearly 50 years, full of all the tenderness and familiarity you would expect from a half-century partnership. And yet their characters are also different people—he a visionary intellectual, she a tempestuous, jealous lover. Plummer plays the brilliant Tolstoy with a sort of everyday grace—a lively, grandfatherly man unaware (mostly) of his larger-than-life celebrity. Mirren's Sofya is fiery and bipolar—a hyperemotional Russian woman prone to drama-queen ranting and raving. She loves Leo deeply and wants him for her own, but fears that his work, his ideas, and legacy are a higher priority for him. Rather than "her own," Tolstoy has become "the world's."