The Last Station is a moving, fictionalized account of a piece of real Russian history, a tour de force for an actor who is in his prime in his 70s and 80s, and a real return to form for a director most at home in period pieces.
Director Michael Hoffman's film is based on the Jay Parini novel about the last days of the great writer Leo Tolstoy, a man regarded as a living saint in pre-World War I Russia. That was partly because of his fame and the reputation of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. But it also was because Tolstoy, brought to twinkling and raging life by Christopher Plummer, had become a religious philosopher, preaching the abandonment of personal property, passive resistance, justice and love to Russia's peasants, thus irritating the government and the Russian Orthodox Church.
His effort to "perfect my soul" wins converts — "Tolstoyans," one of whom is a young essayist, Valentin (James McAvoy). Valentin takes the job of secretary to the 81-year-old Tolstoy, but is given grave instructions by Chertkov (Paul Giamatti, wonderful), the leader of the Tolstoyan movement. Go, serve, keep a diary and by all means, keep Chertkov informed of Countess Tolstoy's doings.
"She's very, very dangerous," he whispers.
Mrs. Tolstoy (Helen Mirren), Valentin discovers, is in a fury over "conspirators" and her husband's plans to turn over his copyrights "to humanity, to the Russian people." She has been his muse, his transcriptionist and his editor for 48 years. She's not having it.
"You all think he's Christ," Mirren, as the countess, fumes as only she can. "He thinks he's Christ." But her tantrums and manipulations are driving the old count into rages himself. Plummer and Mirren, both Oscar nominees for these roles, give as good as they get in these epic eruptions.
McAvoy (Last King of Scotland, Atonement) is adept at this naïve-witness-to-history role. His character also is practicing Tolstoy's vow of celibacy, and his discovery of love (Kerry Condon, as a pre-Communist Communist) becomes the film's romantic relief. But this is a tale of two love stories — the count loves his countess, and Valentin must choose between his idol and his lover.
The film feels familiar even in its novel moments, this war of wills between the great husband and the woman behind him, the opening of the eyes of the naïve lad who becomes a man.
As in Restoration, Hoffman mixes corny melodrama with history, ably mining the attitudes, personalities and mores of an obscure corner of history. In letting us see the fiery woman who helped the great writer bring War and Peace to the page, in casting a light on the mortal, personal combat over Tolstoy's legacy, he makes The Last Station a stop that any literary-minded moviegoer will want to make.