Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren are marvelous as Leo Tolstoy and his wife Sofya in this look at the Russian writer’s final days. But there’s more than great acting going on here. The Last Station is a lovely and fascinating examination of how a lifetime of ideas weighs against the actual living–and ending–of a life.
The Last Station follows Count Lev (Leo) Nikolayevich Tolstoy through his last year on his country estate in Russia. The author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina had by 1910 achieved more than just fame and wealth—he was seen as a social-justice saint, a religious, philosophical and political prophet speaking out against the Russian Czarist government and for the peasants. Likewise, his promotion of a life free of the burdens and distractions of wealth and pleasures of the flesh had given rise to the Tolstoyan Movement—a pacifist communal following of intelligentsia who tried to adhere much more strictly to Tolstoy’s beliefs than the man himself ever did.
Christopher Plummer (Tolstoy) and Helen Mirren (Tolstoy’s beloved wife Countess Sofya Andreyevna) both received Oscar nominations for The Last Station and it’s easy to see why—these are two of our greatest living actors grabbing hold of a couple plum roles. Giving the film the full Lion in Winter flush of love-hate passion, Plummer and Mirren are locked in a delightful dance—this is one of those welcome but all-too-rare cases where two performers push and spin one another to great heights.
But those great thespians need something to thespy about, and writer-director Michael Hoffman serves it up. Tolstoy is dying and he’s made sure in his will that the copyrights on his works go to the public domain—to The People he cherishes and hopes to enlighten. That decision infuriates Sofya, who not only claims to have been Lev’s life-long partner, muse, secretary, and editor; but who also fights like a lioness to ensure her children and grandchildren will be financially taken care of. (The Tolstoys were landed aristocracy, even as Lev rejected the notions of wealth and property in his later years.) No one needs to talk up Helen Mirren’s talent—she rounds Sofya out as more than just a narrative foil, but rather a strong woman struggling with losing both her husband and control over his artistic legacy.
On the opposite side of the argument is Paul Giamatti’s scheming Vladimir Chertkov, a major figure in the Tolstoyan movement who wants the Grand Philosophical Cause advanced. To ensure Sofya doesn’t manage to talk Lev out of the will in his final days, Chertkov sends a spy to the Tolstoy estate: James McAvoy once again playing the naïve outsider, in this case the young, idealistic writer and Tolstoyan Valentin Fedorovich Bulgakov.
Of course Valentine Fedorovich’s lofty principles and dedication to the cause are soon swamped by Sofya’s charm, an introduction to the physical and emotional pleasures of love (the Irish actress Kerry Condon is terrific as Valentine’s free-spirited mentor), and most of all by Tolstoy himself.
The power of Hoffman’s film and Plummer’s heady and hale performance is not in how deeply it presents Tolstoy’s Great Works and Ideas, but in how perfectly it paints oh-so-human nature. As presented here, Lev Tolstoy once ran wild and foolish, chasing experiences with abandon. And like so many people, as he grew older he saw the waste and error of his youthful ways and preached against them, seeking a higher ideal, a more purposeful, philosophically constructive life.
But the film captures the beautiful paradoxes of life: that with more age comes even more wisdom and perspective, even on your previous beliefs. When presented with his loftier pronouncements on How to Live, Tolstoy admits with a wry smile, “I say a lot of things.” Lev Tolstoy is a lousy Tolstoyan because he knows that being young and foolish, being smitten with love and driven to distraction by lust is part of what gives any later insights their weight.
The Last Station is no dry, claustrophobic stage play of ideas—its rustic landscapes are populated with horses, trains and peasants toiling in the fields, all drenched in that pale, warm pastoral Russian light. If that’s not enough, there’s plenty of manipulation and maneuvering (Mirren and Giamatti put on a master class of knowing glares), and a little fist shaking and bellowing tossed in for good measure. Not to mention a dash of love and sex.
Some dramatic steam is lost in the final third when Tolstoy flees his estate, escaping into the life of a wandering aesthete he’d always craved. But right up to the very end Plummer beautifully portrays Lev’s struggle between his artistic ideals and his earthly love for his family. Some may criticize The Last Station for being “just” about great performances and big ideas—that it ends up “just” another heady biopic about writers and the family members who put up with them. But those “just”s are enough and more to make it well worth your time.