The last days of Leo Tolstoy

by Mark Burger

The histrionics come hot and heavy in The Last Station (opening Friday), an adaptation of Jay Pariani’s novel by director Michael Hoffman, which dramatizes the last days of famed Russian author Leo Tolstoy (played here by the inestimable Christopher Plummer).

The year is 1910, and Tolstoy has become a legend in his own time, with a bevy of sycophantic followers at his beck and call. He’s still railing against the system — discussing and dissecting politics, religion and social reforms — but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the old man’s days are numbered.

Tolstoy’s acolytes, led by Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) want him to will the rights of his works to them, thereby keeping it in the hands of the Russian people (or so Chertkov insists).

Tolstoy’s wife, the Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren), wants the rights of her husband’s work to benefit their family, knowing full well their value as a commodity. Plummer’s Tolstoy may be approaching the end of his days, but this lion in winter can still roar — and so can his wife, who has stayed married to him through 48 years and 13 children (five of whom died).

“You don’t need a husband,” one character rails at Sofya, “you need a Greek chorus!” The enmity between Sofya and Chertkov reaches a fever pitch, and Tolstoy — crafty codger that he is — sometimes uses it to his personal advantage to goad and cajole those around him, as if proving to them that he’s still got the power.

Into this raging torrent of Russian egos steps Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), himself a devotee of Tolstoy’s work, who arrives at Bertkov’s behest, ostensibly as a secretary but in reality to keep on eye on Sofya. Instead, he gets a first-hand glimpse into the increasingly heated rivalry between Sofya and Bertkov — and he doesn’t like what he sees. Tolstoy’s life is hanging in the balance, and already his heirs are squabbling over his legacy.

Valentin is essentially an observer throughout the film, but McAvoy gives a curiously passive performance. He’s just there, and not much more. Conversely, and perhaps to compete with Mirren and Plummer’s robust turns, Giamatti barrels into his role with actorish abandon, literally twirling his moustache in manipulative delight. A more subtle approach might have been more persuasive, but Giamatti is never dull, that’s for sure. Kerry Condon, John Sessions and McAvoy’s real-life wife, Anne- Marie Duff, are also on hand to lend the film some flavor.

Anthony Hopkins and Meryl Streep were originally touted for the roles of Tolstoy and his wife, but Plummer and Mirren are such a splendid screen duo it’s difficult to see anyone else in the roles. Clearly, the Academy agreed, nominating Mirren as Best Actress and Plummer as Best Supporting Actor. (It’s Plummer’s first nomination ever, which rectifies — to some small extent — this long oversight.)

The Last Station often feels like a play, with some of the actors are playing to the back row (and some scenes absolutely designed for it), yet there’s an undeniable (if uneven) energy to it, due largely to the expertise and experience with which its principal duo plays it. They make The Last Station worth a visit.

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