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Review: The Last Station

Lions in winter: a Tolstoyan feast
By STEVE VINEBERG  |  February 24, 2010
4.0 4.0 Stars

 

The Last Station | Directed by Michael Hoffman | Written by Hoffman and Jay Parini | with Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, Paul Giamatti, and James McAvoy | Sony Pictures Classics | 112 minutes
Traversing the spectrum from farce to tragedy, Michael Hoffman's magnificent The Last Station suggests what the story of Count Leo Tolstoy's final days would look like if Chekhov had told it. (Hoffman adapted the complex and literate screenplay from Jay Parini's novel.) The movie is set in 1910, where, on Tolstoy's rural estate, Yasnaya Polyana, the great man (Christopher Plummer) and his wife, Sofia (Helen Mirren), play out the finale of a passionate, embattled marriage. Her arch-enemy is Tolstoy's friend and colleague Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who has turned the author's proletarian Christian teachings, which include celibacy, into a political movement played out on the nearby "Tolstoyan" commune, and who has nearly persuaded him to turn over the rights to his work to the Russian people.

The pompous, strait-laced, self-serving Chertkov and the vibrant, sensuous, complicated Sofia — who feels he has alienated her from her husband's affections while scheming to disinherit her children — snipe at each other in their vastly different styles. He shrinks from any behavior that he sees as unseemly; she emotes all over the estate like an unmoored character from one of Tolstoy's novels, eavesdropping on a conference about his will from outside a window and throwing herself into a pond when her husband walks out on her. (Fed up with her displays at one point, Tolstoy suggests that what she needs is a Greek chorus.) And the figure both adversaries seize on as an ally and spy is the naive, earnest young Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), whom Chertkov engages as Tolstoy's private secretary and Sofia strives to co-opt as soon as he appears at Yasnaya Polyana.

It's impossible to imagine a quartet of actors more splendidly suited to play these roles. Plummer, an actor whose theatrical command and expansive warmth are legendary on stage (most recently in the Broadway revival of Inherit the Wind), has never had a movie role as juicy as this one. He's so completely, instinctually right as Tolstoy that he seems to be bringing his entire career to bear. Giamatti, who has made a specialty of playing a wide range of corseted malcontents, may never have been wittier (and he's certainly never had better lines). In the crucial role of Valentin — whose coming of age coincides with his discovery that the love his idol Tolstoy preaches is vital and life-affirming rather than (as it is in Chertkov's version) chilly and pious — McAvoy begins in the camp of Shakespeare's bumbling young clownish lovers and finds a depth of compassion in Valentin's love for his mentor. And Mirren gives one of her towering performances as the countess. Sofia Tolstoy — a woman of uncontrollable feelings whose grandiloquent scenes are simultaneously high drama and piercingly real — is a character out of high comedy, the genre created to balance tragedy and farce. Mirren is both audaciously funny and heartbreaking.

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