Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Michael Hoffman
Stars: Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti, Kerry Condon, Anne-Marie Duff, John Sessions, Patrick Kennedy.
2010 marks the centenary of the death of Leo Tolstoy, one of Russia’s greatest novelists. The Last Station is a fictional dramatisation of the last year of Tolstoy’s life, and is based on the novel written by Jay Parini, which offered a revisionist view of that period and of Tolstoy’s last days. Michael Hoffman (The Emperor’s Club, Soapdish, etc) has deftly compressed the complex narrative structure of Parini’s novel into a more cinema friendly form.
Christopher Plummer is towering as the ailing Tolstoy, and Helen Mirren plays his long-suffering, tempestuous wife Sofia. Tolstoy had founded a movement that espoused passive resistance, celibacy, and the abolition of private property. Heading the Tolstoyan cult is the ambitious and duplicitous Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who believes that Tolstoy should leave his legacy to the Russian people. Sofia opposes this notion, and does her best to convince her husband not to sign away his fortune and her inheritance. Sofia was a formidable woman for her time – she bore Tolstoy 13 children and wrote out five drafts of the epic novel War And Peace by hand. Sofia resents the influence that Chertkov wields over her husband and fears that she may be left destitute after his death.
Into this combustible environment comes Valentin Bulgatov (James McAvoy, from Atonement, etc), an idealistic and naïve young writer who is hired as Tolstoy’s new personal secretary. Chertkov also engages Valentin to spy on the Tolstoy household and maintain a diary of all he witnesses. Sofia also entrusts the eager young Valentin to spy on Chertkov to protect her own interests.
When Tolstoy himself tires of all the infighting and power struggles, he leaves his estate at Yasnaya and heads off to the remote railway station at Astapovo, where he hopes to spend his last days in peace. Although Sofia tries to get in to see him, Chertkov’s aides prevent her from getting through. Meanwhile, international journalists gather to watch and record events.
Hoffman is a fine director of actors, and he draws good performances from his cast. Mirren has a formidable and imperious presence that suits her character well, and with scenery chewing finesse she walks away with the movie. Plummer is also superb, and brings wry humour and a gruff style to his performance. He portrays Tolstoy as a deeply flawed man given to occasional bursts of anger and irrational outbursts. The real acting pyrotechnics come from Mirren and Plummer when they engage in verbal sparring, marked by bouts of cruelty, irony and surprising tenderness. There are several scenes that become a showcase for these two fine actors. Apparently Anthony Hopkins and Meryl Streep were originally slated to play the roles, and one wonders what they would have done with these characters. McAvoy is also good, and Giamatti essays another of his oily, smarmy performances.
The Last Station has been beautifully filmed on locations in Germany by German cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid (Adam Resurrected, etc). Superb attention to period detail, costumes and locations make this a lush looking production.