Movie Review: 'The Last Station'

Film opens Jan. 15: James McAvoy, Helen Mirren, and Christopher Plummer offer a grand display of acting fireworks in The Last Station, writer-director Michael Hoffman's juicy account of the fraught final year of Count Leo Tolstoy's life. The tale depicts a tug of war over Tolstoy's legacy—a clash between ideals and reality, the flesh and the spirit. The great novelist (Plummer), in thrall to his idealistic philosophy, has renounced his title, his property, eating meat, and sex, and is about to sign away the rights to his novels to "the Russian people"—to the horror of his wife, Sofya (Mirren). She's determined to keep him from giving away his family's inheritance, while the fanatical head of the Tolstoy movement, Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), is dead set on getting Tolstoy to sign. Caught in the middle is young Valentin Bulgakov (McAvoy), Tolstoy's secretary, whom both Sofya and Chertkov try to inveigle to their cause. (Article continued below…)

It's easy to see whose side Hoffman is on: Sofya may be hysterical and manipulative, but on this seriocomedic battlefield her lust for life (and property) trumps Chertkov's rigid ideology. The role lets Mirren unleash her inner diva: Sofya's love-hate combat with her husband plays like "Who's Afraid of Leo Tolstoy?" McAvoy rings virtuoso variations on idol worship and naiveté, and his excitement when he falls in love for the first time with the free-thinking communard Masha (Kerry Condon) is hilarious and touching. The Last Station slides gracefully between comedy and pathos (it aims for tragedy, but doesn't quite get there). Both sides are captured in Plummer's sly, volcanic portrait of an icon far less Tolstoyan than his followers. Was this wildly contradictory genius really this lovably irascible? Perhaps not—but in movie terms, he sure is fun to be around.