Last Station, The

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It takes courage in today's conservative movie climate to make a movie about a famous Russian author, Leo Tolstoy, and doubly so to concentrate on his final years as a cantankerous old man, which is the subject of Michael Hoffman's "The Last Station," a chronicle of the old marriage between Tolstoy, played by Christopher Plummer, and his wife of 48 years, played by Helen Mirren.
 
Writer-director Hoffman is nothing if not versatile, having previously helmed "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," the romantic melodrama "One Fine Day," the satire "Soapdish," and the period-costume drama "Restoration." 
 
Set in the nineteenth century, "The Last Station" recounts the true story of the final year in the life of the great Russian writer Tolstoy, applying a serio-humorous tone to such "Big Themes" as passion, love, family, greed, intrigue, conflict and revolution.
 
Hoffman's scenario is adapted from Jay Parini's best-selling novel, which drew on the diary entries of Tolstoy’s closest relatives and friends. Tolstoy's descendants have served as advisers during the production.
 
After a long, happy marriage, the Countess Sofya (Mirren), Leo Tolstoy’s (Plummer) devoted wife suddenly finds her entire world turned upside down.   As a result of his newly created religion, the Russian novelist has renounced his noble title, his property and even his family in favor of poverty, vegetarianism and even celibacy.
 
Consumed by righteous outrage, and unable to accept the new reality, Sofya clings onto the familiar traditions of the past. After all, she has born Tolstoy thirteen children!   Sofya has been much more than a loyal wife, passionate lover, muse and secretary; in one of many arguments with her husband, she charges, "I've copied out 'War and Peace' six times–by hand!"
 
In the first hour, the writers establish two relationships for Sofya. The first is with Tolstoy’s trusted disciple, Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), whom she despises, suspecting that he may have secretly convinced her husband to sign a new will, leaving the rights to his iconic novels to the Russian people rather than his very own family. Using every bit of cunning, every trick of seduction in her considerable arsenal, she fights fiercely for what she believes is rightfully hers. The more extreme her behavior becomes, however, the more easily Chertkov is able to persuade Tolstoy of the damage she will do to his glorious legacy.
 
The second, more amiable one is with Tolstoy’s new assistant, the young, gullible and worshipping Valentin (James McAvoy). Slightly naïve, or at least unprepared for the power games, Valentin becomes a pawn, first of the scheming Chertkov and then of the wounded, vengeful Sofya as each plots to undermine the other’s gains.
 
"The Last Station" aims to say something about the mysterious notion of love–the difficulty of living with love and the impossibility of living without it.   Essentially, the narrative deconstructs two romances, one that's passionate because it's just beginning, the other close to its end.  
 
What complicates Valentin’s life even further is his overwhelming passion for the beautiful and spirited Masha (Kerry Condon), a free thinking adherent of Tolstoy’s new religion whose unconventional attitudes about sex and love both compel and confuse him. Infatuated with Tolstoy’s notions of ideal love, but mystified by the Tolstoys’ rich and turbulent marriage, Valentin is ill equipped to deal with the meaning and consequences of real love.
 
In “The Last Station," it's not the story that's flawed; it's the telling, or how the tale unfolds dramatically and how it looks visually. It takes a good half an hour before the tale really get started, and even then the text goes through ups and downs in dramatic interest. Visually, too, the film comes across as old-fashioned, sort of Masterpiece Theater circa the 1980s.
Each of the superb actors, Mirren, Plummer, Giamatti, and MacAvoy, has some wonderful moments, but, as a result of the writing and helming, they seldom reach the level of excellence we have come to expect from them.
 
In the end, you will learn a lot about an unknown chapter of Tolstoy's life and Russian culture. I just wish the subject and its characters would have been treated in a more dramatically and visually compelling way.