Remember when I unabashedly admitted to being biased in favor of James McAvoy? I wasn’t lying. What that means is that, for me, The Last Station was about a man (played by McAvoy, of course) with saucer-sized blue eyes, an intriguingly crooked nose, perfect teeth, and a Scottish accent. It may have also been about the last days of Leo Tolstoy.
Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (played here by Christopher Plummer) was the writer of such literary masterpieces as War and Peace and Anna Karenina. In his dotage, he was also a cult political figure who inspired a throng of followers headed up by Vladimir Chertkov. In this film, Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) hires a young Tolstoyan named Valentin Bulgakov (McAvoy) to serve double duty as Tolstoy’s personal secretary and to spy on the scribe’s wife, Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren).Over a lifetime, Tolstoy’s written and political work have come to support vegetarianism, passive resistance, celibacy, and the abolishment of personal property.
Those last two especially rub the Countess the wrong way. She is convinced that the sycophantic Chertkov is plotting to get her husband to sign over the rights to his body of work to the people of Russia, leaving her and her children without an inheritance. To prevent this from happening, she tries every trick in the bookincluding fainting, eyelash fluttering, chest pounding, hair pulling, cold-shoulder giving and even lustily clucking like a chickento keep her husband out of the clutches of the moustache-twirling weasel.
The naïve and virginal Bulgakov is there to witness the sometimes amusing, sometimes heartbreaking love story between Sofya and her Levushka, while discovering a first love of his own. He falls hard and fast for a free-spirited beauty named Masha (Kerry Condon), who also lives on the commune that Bulgakov calls home, after she sneaks into his room one night, bringing him tea, jam, and something a little sweatier.
Adapted by screenwriter/director Michael Hoffman from a novel of the same name by Jay Parini, The Last Station features realistic Russian countryside estates, historically accurate costumes, and non-intrusive camera work and editing. But it is the kind of esoteric, Merchant Ivory-esque period drama that depends entirely on the abilities of its cast. Thankfully, those talents are considerable and put to good, exuberant use.
Whether the writing is farcical and melodramatic (a scene that has the Countess climbing through windows in her bedclothes to eavesdrop while photographers snap photos up at her fits both bills) or downright Russian in its austere paucity, as in the final moments of the film, Mirren is masterful. Her sense of humor and sense of self are the very essence of the character. Meanwhile, Plummer’s Tolstoy is part-Gandalf, part-Dumbledore, and part Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street (none of whom he played. I double-checked): at once jolly, wise, old, and kind of magical. You simply can’t help but being sucked into their playful, endearing, and downright sexy chemistry.
And then there’s my McAvoy, whose knack for playing characters with a quiet sweetness nicely balances all of the older couple’s histrionics. Also, did I mention the Scottish accent?