4 stars, (PG-13)
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The strength of The Last Station
is that it lingers on the quiet moments before and after tirades, noble speeches and grand gestures. Mind you, the tirades, speeches and gestures are pretty juicy, but it's those moments before and after that keep the proceedings on a human plane. Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer star as Sofya and Leo Tolstoy and it's fun watching their big acting - not just in the loud scenes, mind you, even the intimate moments are acted big.
The story deals with the final weeks in the life of Leo Tolstoy, and the operative word here is "story." If you revere Tolstoy, if you find Tolstoy off-putting or intimidating, if you don't know the Russian icon at all - you need to remember that the screenplay is based on a novel by Jay Parini. So you're watching an adaptation of a fictional work based on a real man, not a docudrama.
What do you need to know? The year is 1910 and the author of War and Peace
and Anna Karenina
is old and his health is failing. A Utopian movement has built up around Tolstoy, espousing passive resistance, chastity and the rejection of private property. "I believe wealth corrupts us all," says Tolstoy while lounging outdoors at his estate. Sasha (Anne-Marie Duff), Tolstoy's daughter, is a dedicated member of the group. Tolstoyian prime mover Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) strives to insure that his idol changes his will and leaves his works to the people.
Sofya thinks this is a load of bullshit. Staring down a group of Tolstoyians surrounding her husband, she sputters, "Well, you all think he's Christ, don't you? He thinks he's Christ!" As should come as no surprise, she fiercely opposes the idea of changing the will.
Leo Tolstoy loves his wife as deeply as she loves him. Though he is given to florid statements, he complains about his wife's histrionics, at one point shouting, "You don't need a husband, you need a Greek chorus!" Entertaining stuff.
James McAvoy plays Valentin Bulakov, a young man hired by Chertkov to be Tolstoy's secretary and to take detailed notes on everything he sees and hears. He becomes close to both Mr. and Mrs. Tolstoy and falls for Masha (Kerry Condon), a Tolstoyian who isn't all that concerned with the chastity part of the movement.
Writer-director Michael Hoffman uses his Merchant-Ivory-ish settings well. He uses McAvoy's relatively bland character to provide breathing room between the Tolstoy's Shakespearian outbursts and oh-so-significant musings. I don't mean to be dismissive of the couple there - it's just that Mirren and Plummer's acting is on such a large scale that it's important to differentiate between the behavior of their characters and that of most everyone else in the world. Both actors are gripping - you care about this couple, with their great love still there beneath the time, emotional distance, paranoia and hubris - but hoo boy, what a couple of drama queens!
I cared less about the movement. The fact that those who inspire Utopian movements rarely follow their own guidelines is nothing new. The notion that zealots like Giamatti's character often forget their principles in pursuit of their goals isn't exactly a revelation either. That aspect of the film is diverting at times, but also distracting and dull at other moments. I enjoyed the glimpse of the 1910 paparazzi, even though Hoffman really lays it on thick. Then again, laying it on thick is part of the appeal of The Last Station
. Come for Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer, stay for the fights, the banter, the melodrama and the social/political commentary. And enjoy the poetry, too, because it's in there somewhere.