Newly anointed with two major Oscar nominations, The Last Station arrives with a built-in audience. Writer-director Michael Hoffman’s adaptation of Jay Parini’s novel about Leo Tolstoy’s disorderly final months provided a friendly platform to lift the never-before-nominated Christopher Plummer (as Tolstoy) and Oscar darling Helen Mirren (as Tolstoy’s dramatic wife Countess Sofya) into contention as Best Supporting Actor and Best Actress. Though their performances are, by definition, prominent (shall we say, “conspicuous”?), audiences will be split on whether or not the hammy displays are worthy of Blue Ribbons.
The film opens in 1910, with Tolstoy more or less happily ensconced at his family estate Yasnaya Polyana. He’s irritably aware of the contradiction represented by this piece of private property, a notion he has publicly renounced. With his career as a novelist (War and Peace, Anna Karenina) already history, Tolstoy has become the spiritual leader of a social movement that captures the imagination of many a youth (calling themselves “Tolstoyans”) and in equal proportion threatens those invested in the social order. Countess Sofya falls in the latter camp. Since her husband seems likely, in death, to relinquish his estate—and the rights to his works—to a common good, jealous socialite Sofya maintains a thick, rich lather around her husband and his trusted associate Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti).
The first part of the film, then, is a comedy of bad manners, pitting Tolstoy’s acolytes (living at a nearby commune) against the Chekhovian archetypes squatting round Tolstoy at his well-appointed digs. Into this teeming mass of idealism and hypocrisy steps Valentin Bulgakov, the enthusiastic acolyte selected as the master’s new secretary. Painted by Hoffman and actor James McAvoy as a nervous Nellie and a virginal naïf, Valentin is easily batted around by Sofya and Chertkov, the latter warning of the former, “She is very, very dangerous.” These natural enemies vying for Tolstoy’s ear command the young Valentin to keep a diary detailing the competition’s maneuvers and Tolstoy’s moods. Smitten with an earthy, ripe Tolstoyan (Kerry Condon) who threatens his commitment to chastity, Valentin instantly cuts a farcical figure. For Tolstoy’s part, he seems to want little more than peace and quiet, after forty-eight years of marriage to one of the all-time drama queens.
But Hoffman’s telltale front-loading of the epigraph “Everything that I know…I know because I love” signals that The Last Station will drift from comedy into gloomier and gloomier melodrama. Neither part of the narrative is terribly convincing on its own, nor do they add up to a convincing sum. Hoffman’s take on Tolstoy’s last days winds up feeling strangely perfunctory. This is subject matter that should fascinate, rather than deliver an occasional droll observation. And though Plummer’s doddering is charming enough, Mirren’s disproportionate braying is the antithesis of the restraint that last won her a gold statue. Were Hoffman to ask, by picture’s end, “What have we learned, class?” he might not like the answer: “We should have done our reading instead of just watching the movie.”
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]