The last of the big-award Oscar contenders (Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor) hits town this week with Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station. If the idea of a movie about the final year in the life of Count Leo (Lev) Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) and his wife Sofya (Helen Mirren) sounds a little dry to you, reconsider. It didn’t sound that enticing to me, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that the only one of writer-director Hoffman’s previous films I’d cared for was Soapdish (1991), which seemed a very different proposition and a good while back. Oddly, The Last Station is such a cheeky creation that it turns out to be not such a different proposition at all. This is biographical fare of a very different kind than you would probably expect. It’s played as a kind of domestic farce, with the more serious aspects being allowed to sneak up on you. The approach pays dividends at every turn.
We more or less view the story through the eyes of Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), a young man anxious to become a part of the then-burgeoning Tolstoy cult (Tolstoyans). Valentin is hired as a secretary for Tolstoy by the author’s primary acolyte Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). Chertkov, however, wants Valentin to be a little more than a secretary. He wants him to keep track of what Tolstoy’s wife, Sofya, is doing. Chertkov—a true believer in Tolstoy’s pacifist, vegetarian, celibate (theoretically), quasi-mystical utopian vision—has a plan to get Tolstoy to sign over the rights to all his literary works to the Russian people. Not surprisingly, Sofya, who likes her comforts and finds the Tolstoyan movement more than a little on the crackpot side, is out to prevent this. In one sense, the film is mostly about this battle for control over the 82-year-old writer, but there’s more to it than that.
Sofya has managed to place—in her own mind—Chertkov’s influence over her husband as a late-in-the-day homosexual crush on the younger man. She’s very outspoken on this point, and interestingly neither Tolstoy nor Chertkov deny it. The most reaction she ever gets is Chertkov looking miffed when she refers to him as a catamite. Indeed, Giamatti plays the character in a manner that suggests she may be right. For that matter, Sofya—despite the self-serving aspects of her machinations—is often shown as understanding the great man far better than anyone else involved. And much of their arguing and even dinner-plate-smashing fights are obviously nothing more than two old hands at this game striking poses for each other’s benefit, and, of course, for the benefit of anyone out of the loop who happens to be in the vicinity—like the hapless Valentin or the ever-present photographers, cameramen and reporters who are camped out in front of the house like early paparazzi.
A lot of the film is played for comedy. Occasionally—as when Sofya clambers across balconies (in full view of the delighted press on the lawn) to spy on Tolstoy—it crosses the line into something like bedroom farce. But rather than diminish the characters and the drama, this only serves to enhance it. It’s impossible not to like Sofya and Tolstoy. It helps that Mirren never forgets to play Sofya as a woman in love, and that Plummer plays Tolstoy as a man aware of his own shortcomings and one who is quietly amused by the world’s perception of him as a great man. Though I think it unlikely either will win the Oscar, both would certainly be worthy of the award. Come to that, the film—which was not nominated—would be a better choice than some that were nominated, but that’s a separate issue. In any case, do not miss this one. Rated R for a scene of sexuality/nudity.