Starring: Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Christopher Plummer
Directed by: Michael Hoffman (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”)
Written by: Michael Hoffman (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”)
While “The Last Station,” a melodramatic period piece on 19th century Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, might not find the literary scholar in all of us, there’s no denying the major influence the writer’s work has had on generations of free-thinking minds. From Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr., Tolstoy, who wrote such well-known novels such as “War and Peace,” “Anna Karenina” and “The Kingdom of God is Within You,” is regarded by many as a one of the greatest storytellers in all of literature.
Portraying Tolstoy at the age of 81 is an icon in his own right, 80-year-old Canadian actor Christopher Plummer, who began his professional film career in the last ’50s and is best known for his role in “The Sound of Music” and his Tony Award-winning work on Broadway. As Tolstoy, a part that earned him the first Academy Award nomination of his career this year, Plummer is fantastic. Accolades are also well deserved for Oscar winner Helen Mirren (“The Queen”), who plays Tolstoy’s wife of 48 years, Sofya. The role earned her a fourth Academy Award nomination.
The acting talent is limitless in “The Last Station,” which also stars Oscar nominee Paul Giamatti (“Cinderella Man”) and up-and-coming Scottish actor James McAvoy (“Atonement”). In the film, McAvoy plays Valentine Bulgakov, a young and impressionable essayist who becomes Tolstoy’s personal secretary. Like his role in 2006’s “The Last King of Scotland” where he plays Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s private physician, McAvoy’s Valentine is at the center of a delicate, emotional, and historical narrative. This one splits Tolstoy between his family and his faction.
The year is 1910 and Tolstoy has built a substantial following of people who live life according to his philosophy, which includes celibacy and passive resistance. Known as Tolstoyans, a Christian anarchist group formed by Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti), the advocates regard Tolstoy as a prophet. In “The Last Station,” Vladimir sends Valentine into the Tolstoy estate to spy and report back family news from inside the household. Vladimir is worried Sofya will ruin the commune’s plan to indoctrinate the public with his beliefs. She wants the rights to her husbands work after he passes away, but Vladimir argues the work belongs to the people. Tolstoy, himself, seems bewildered at the thought of having to choose between his wife and the man who could help seal his legacy.
While “The Last Station” might feel a bit stuffy and slowly-paced for some viewers, director/screenwriter Michael Hoffman (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) has created an intelligent drama based on the intricacies that evolve when relationships and ideals collide. As Mrs. Tolstoy, Mirren is memorable when revealing her character’s frustrations as she slowly loses her husband to the world. McAvoy, too, holds his own alongside the veterans by creating a sympathetic character lost between his idolization of a flawed master and his better conscience.