From Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman. 3 1/2 of 4 stars.
‘Last Station’ explores author Tolstoy’s warlike final year
The war and not peace that filled Russian author Leo Tolstoy’s final year of life has the epic pull of one of his novels in the period film “The Last Station.”
In 1910, Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), writer of “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina,” is an aging but still living legend, surrounded by hordes of early-day paparazzi and zealous followers of his Christian-based, pre-revolutionary philosophy.
Retired but still active at his country estate, Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy, his legacy and beliefs brew in the center of a furious storm. After living as an aristocrat and fathering 13 children with his wife, the elderly writer renounces wealth and espouses a doctrine of social equality, passive resistance and celibate purity.
His beloved acolyte Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), the calculating leader of the ardent Tolstoyans, campaigns for Tolstoy to rewrite his will and give the copyrights to his masterworks to the Russian people, with “the movement” administering the cash.
When Chertokov is put on house arrest by the czar’s police, he dispatches idealistic, fervent Tolstoyan Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) to Yasnaya Polyana to serve as the writer’s personal secretary. But Valentin’s true mission is to spy on Tolstoy’s wife, Countess Sofya Tolstoy (Helen Mirren), whom Chertokov considers dangerous and grasping.
Tolstoy’s spouse of 48 years, Sofya knew the author before he was famous, a living saint or the prophet his doctor (John Sessions) declares him. She scorns the “fake religion and revolutionary nonsense” of her husband’s disciples and venomously despises Chertokov. Having helped write his novels and born those 13 children, she desperately wants to keep her husband’s copyrights and estate for the sake of herself and the family.
The entire household is fully engaged in the heat of this battle — it’s even split the Tolstoy children, with daughter Sasha (Anne-Marie Duff) siding with the Tolstoyans and son Andrey (Tomas Spencer) backing the countess — when Valentin arrives.
Initially so awed he can barely speak to the author, Valentin continues to regard his hero as an intellectual giant. But he is surprised that Tolstoy is admittedly not that great a Tolstoyan, particularly when he starts fondly recalling youthful days spent sowing wild oats.
Valentin’s loyalties are challenged when the countess takes him into her confidence, encouraging him to keep a diary of what he really sees. He, along with the audience, sympathizes with Sofya even as she shatters dishes, rails in near hysterics and even attempts suicide to get her spouse’s attention.
The young disciple also must question his beliefs, particularly his vow of chastity, when he falls in love with Masha (the luminous Kerry Condon), a spirited worker at the nearby Tolystoyan commune. Masha fears the movement already has begun to fall into political scheming and stray from the core principles of love and freedom.
Period beauty and details and powerhouse performances drive director Michael Hoffman’s (“Soapdish”) intriguing if melodramatic tragicomedy. Nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar, Plummer deftly conveys the complexities of Tolstoy, who eventually flees the household to find peace.
But “The Last Station” truly starts and stops with Mirren’s towering portrayal of the loyal wife shunted aside by her spouse’s celebrity. By turns sorrowful, sardonic and histrionic, Mirren’s Sofya is always wonderfully, sloppily human. Though she is a longshot, Mirren deserves the best actress Oscar for which she is nominated.