The Last Station
- Written and directed by Michael Hoffman
- Starring Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren and James McAvoy
- Classification: 14A
- Two stars
First, the history: In 1910, literary titan Leo Tolstoy, the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, died of pneumonia at the age of 82 in a railway station after he had run away from home. The scene outside the station became a circus of newspaper correspondents, government agents and priests.
Tolstoy was escaping from his chaotic domestic life. In his senior years, he had affected peasant garb and surrounded himself with acolytes, including Vladimir Chertkov, who had begun to help run the writer's affairs and wanted to help him give away his fortune. On the other side was Countess Sofya, Tolstoy's wife and helpmate of almost 50 years, who had repeatedly copied out his massive books and given him 13 children. She felt the money should be kept for their heirs.
The strange events of the last year of Tolstoy's life were captured in Jay Parini's admired 1990 novel, which gives Michael Hoffman's movie its name. For all the film's literary pedigree, the results are anything but highbrow. The director of Restoration and One Fine Day, who also wrote the screenplay, has turned the material into a broad bedroom farce with a large injection of pathos at the end. Fitfully interesting, occasionally cringe-worthy, this is the sort of stagy production that mixes ribaldry and campy overacting that evokes summer theatre productions.
Our entry point into the Tolstoyan domestic battle is James McAvoy as the wide-eyed Valentin Bulgakov, who arrives at Tolstoy's commune, near his estate, to serve as a secretary and learn more of the writer's philosophy of pacifism, social equality, vegetarianism and celibacy. He has been hired by the devious Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who wants him to spy on the old man (Christopher Plummer) and especially his wife Sofya (Helen Mirren).
McAvoy's role is essentially comic. Valentin is a bumbling virginal ascetic, Seduced in his bedchamber by Masha (Kerry Condon), he soon learns that the Tolstoyans, including Tolstoy himself, are less pious than he imagined. Soon, Sofya starts working on Valentin to help look out for her interests too, and setting him right about the reality of Tolstoy's history.
Plummer's enjoyable performance as the old lion is more roué than mystic. He's given to quick flares of anger and lusty reminiscences, but there is little hint of what was great about Tolstoy, his passion for the poor or the intellectual insight that inspired Gandhi. Instead, we get a scene with Tolstoy and Sofya making chicken sounds in the bedroom to one another in pre-copulatory zeal.
Mirren, such a model of emotional subtlety in The Queen, borders on grating as the emotionally operatic Sofya. When not hanging off windowsills or throwing herself in the pond in half-hearted suicide attempts, she is a shape-shifting mess of hysteria, pathos and manipulation that is more exhausting than affecting, though her gusto is more attractive to Valentin than Chertkov's rigid ideology.
Giamatti, needless to say, also overacts shamelessly, literally stroking his mustache as he plots his dire schemes to bequeath Tolstoy's works to the Russian people.
Given the bedlam of his home life, Tolstoy can hardly be blamed for making a run for it. When he steals away in the early-morning hours, the movie finally begins to take on some emotional potency. The frisson of those final scenes, where the old man is lying dying in a station master's chamber while the media and hangers-on hover outside, is less old-fashionedly tragic than grisly and bizarre in a peculiarly contemporary way. It feels like an improbable foreshadowing of O.J. Simpson's "low-speed chase" and many media circuses to come.
The Last Station opens in Vancouver on Jan. 29, in Ottawa and Montreal on Feb. 12 and in other cities nationwide on Feb. 26.