Though it takes place in pre-revolutionary Russia, The Last Station has provocative, often amusing echoes of today in its portrait of the media circus and political infighting surrounding famed War and Peace novelist Leo Tolstoy.
When the film opens, Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) is ensconced in a remote villa in the Russian countryside with his family, servants, and a core group of acolytes. Tolstoy is like the Britney Spears of his day. As the most renowned novelist of the time, he’s stalked by a TMZ-like media posse who are camped out around his home. The pre-rev paparazzi hang on Tolstoy’s every word and keep their cameras rolling on the off chance of catching a bit of scandal. And scandal there is, in the raging battle going on between Tolstoy’s wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren) and a power-grabbing Tolstoy disciple Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who dismisses their marriage as “romantic nonsense.”
As Tolstoy’s fame has grown, Sofya feels supplanted and forgotten, a remnant of his old life. When Chertkov begins talking about the copyright (and profits) to Tolstoy’s work going to the Russian people, instead of his family, Sofya’s outrage is intense, exploding into operatic, sputtering rages. She represents the old guard of entitled Russian aristocrats, and Tolstoy is part of a new wave that advocates a rejection of private property and the pettiness that comes with it. Observing these sensational doings is the gentle, sensitive Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), recently hired as Tolstoy’s personal secretary.
By the time Valentin arrives on the scene, Tolstoy is nothing less than a saint in Russian society whose opinions on sex, religion, and private property are followed like scripture. But Tolstoy is not entirely happy with how his ideas have been enacted as inflexible dogma by his followers. A commune has sprung up on the surrounding land, where young women chop wood and angry young radicals stew about the world’s injustices. Below the surface, The Last Station is a film about how beliefs, in the wrong hands, can be turned into ideological law and how Tolstoy’s humanist approach to social justice was perverted by his followers.
Meanwhile, Valentin, an innocent plunged into this sophisticated lair of free-thinkers and radicals and various factions surrounding Tolstoy, learns to tread lightly, reveal little, and observe before acting. But his sympathies soon alight on Sofya, who advocates love and loyalty over the ideology and myth-making Chertkov represents. She longs for a sympathetic witness to her heartbreak and the equally emotional, and romantic Valentin fulfills that roll divinely.
Part of the reason for Valentin’s preference for Sofya’s point of view is his own circumstance. An innocent in life and in bed, Valentin finds himself done in by a wood-splitting, free-love advocating beauty Masha (Kerry Condon), who quickly breaks through his Tolstoyian vow of chastity. James McAvoy is beguiling, playing the kind of ingenue more often conceptualized as female. He weeps at his first meeting with Tolstoy and is equally bowled over by his first taste of romantic love.
But the principle attraction of The Last Station is its vivid, intense love affair between the battling elders Leo and Sofya, who put the tempestuous teens of Twilight to shame with the depth of their passions. Even with a 48-year marriage between them, there are nagging emotional wounds. The film is about how even a life spent together, one that includes 13 children and five miscarriages, can contain chronic misunderstandings. Some may cluck at the melodrama, but the depth of passion represented here tends to compensate for the film’s hysterical tendencies. By the end of this emotional roller coaster of comedy and tragedy, and everything in between, your fondest longing may be for a way to repair this badly damaged relationship.
The Last Station is a film that lives and dies on its performances, and director Michael Hoffman has assembled an inspired cast. Giamatti is perfect as the immortality-obsessed Chertkov whose meticulously waxed mustache and perfumed body are the “tell” of his innate vanity. His mere physical presence alone, understandably, drives Sofya mad. Christopher Plummer captures both Tolstoy’s warmth and compassion with his intimates, but also his coldness with his wife. And Helen Mirren’s talent is her satisfyingly nuanced portrait of a woman who can be both a maddening drama queen and an understandably devastated woman watching the love of her life retreat. Sofya is a woman in love with love. Her life’s work has been her family and her husband, and to see them slip away from her must have been especially devastating for a woman of her day.