The Last Station arrives in town with better-than-normal box-office hopes buoyed by a couple of high-profile Oscar nominations: Helen Mirren for Best Actress and Christopher Plummer for Best Supporting Actor.
Plummer is Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, the author of War & Peace and Anna Karenina. Mirren is his wife, Sofya. The film is set in 1910, late in Tolstoy's life, when he has morphed from merely the world's most famous living writer to the head of a movement.
There is a commune dedicated to the Tolstoyan philosophy — an ascetic creed dedicated to pacifism, celibacy, vegetarianism, and other beliefs of which Tolstoy himself isn't always a strict practitioner — surrounding the family's summer home, and the great man himself is surrounded by followers whom Sofya considers to be parasites and sycophants. When one contends that Tolstoy is a prophet, Sofya chortles: "God, this is unbearable. No wonder I'm lonely. I'm surrounded by morons."
The film's conflict is over the rights to Tolstoy's work. Chief acolyte Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) is counseling Tolstoy to make the rights public upon his death, as a gift to the Russian people and as an extension of his personal philosophy. But a disgusted Sofya, seeking to protect the estate on behalf of the couple's children, will have none of this. Caught in the middle is Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), a young Tolstoyan hired by Chertkov to be Tolstoy's personal secretary and, he hopes, his own spy, but who also becomes something of a confidant to Sofya.
McAvoy, whose big break came in a similar "witness to 'greatness'" role in The Last King of Scotland, is the audience's entry to the story and in some ways the lead character. His Valentin is a true admirer of Tolstoy and is at first dedicated to a philosophy he may not fully understand, as the film shows him gradually disabused of his rectitude and certainty by Tolstoy, Sofya, and, finally, Masha (Kerry Condon), a comely Tolstoyan who bemusedly equates sex between the two as "making [Valentin] forget God."
Adapted by director Michael Hoffman from a novel by Jay Parini, The Last Station is not a conventional biopic. It requires little knowledge of — or, frankly, interest in — Tolstoy's work. And I suppose one could argue that it lacks the heft of its subject matter.
Hoffman's highest-profile credits are decade-old Hollywood semi-hits One Fine Day and Soapdish. The Last Station comes on more like an unusually juicy and smart TV movie than it does great cinema. It's an extravagant acting piece that is written with zest if not exactly a strict adherence to history. (This is, after all, a Russian period piece populated by scenery-chewing British actors.)
Plummer plays Tolstoy less as a great man than as a wise old codger who understands he's treated as a great man. And Mirren goes for broke. Her Sofya smashes the china, lashes out at the proto-paparazzi littering her yard, threatens two suicide attempts, and summons her husband home with a false report of illness but a real desire to get him back into her bed.
This is not an art film, for better or worse. It's just a terrifically entertaining movie for smart grown-ups, which is an increasingly rare treat.