Mirren, Plummer excellent in 'Last Station'
By Claudia Puig
Every second Helen Mirren is onscreen in "The Last Station" is a study in peerless talent.
As Countess Sofya Tolstoy, Mirren is imperious, warm, sardonic and histrionic — each state portrayed equally convincingly.
Christopher Plummer superbly plays Leo Tolstoy, her husband of 48 years, with a gruff charm and bawdy wit that draws viewers into this tale of the Russian novelist's final year.
Sofya clings to the privileges of their aristocratic life, while Tolstoy becomes increasingly involved in a movement bearing his name that eschews private property and advocates passive resistance.
They live testily in a mansion that is no longer the elegant estate it once was, adjoined by Tolstoyan followers encamped nearby. While Sofya retains her elegant bearing and fine gowns, her husband seems without ego, dressing like a peasant. She clings to her religious beliefs, and he dismisses them in favor of one overriding principle: love.
Injected into their personal clashes is Tolstoy's idealistic personal secretary, Valentin Bulgakov, played with just the right blend of good humor and soulfulness by James McAvoy.
While Tolstoy is determined to see his fellow Russians "cast off centuries of oppression," he also becomes the puppet of his ruthless, ardent follower Vladimir Chertkov, played with finesse by Paul Giamatti. Vladimir warns the innocent Valentin that the countess is dangerous to their mission and instructs him to keep detailed reports.
Meanwhile, the countess, sensing a possible ally, presents Valentin with another diary and encourages him to write what he sees.
What he sees is not as clear-cut as he supposed. He sees in Tolstoy a man with far more of an artist's sensibility than a movement organizer. Where Valentin yearns to "discuss ideas, to perfect my very soul" at the knee of the great author, the puckish Tolstoy dismisses some of his doctrine's key tenets — like celibacy.
One of the most moving scenes is Sofya recounting how she helped to decipher Tolstoy's handwriting and copy "War and Peace."
As Tolstoy grows ill, he increasingly becomes a pawn of Vladimir, while the countess becomes emotionally unstable.
Valentin resists his attraction to a fellow Tolstoyan, then falls deeply in love with her.
Tolstoy is said to be an enemy of the state. Still, it is jarring and possibly anachronistic to see the cadres of photographers and journalists assembled near his country home, resembling the contemporary corps of paparazzi.
Director Michael Hoffman has wisely cast the 79-year-old Plummer, who was the same age as Tolstoy in the story, and he presents a fair-minded and powerful case for both sides of the property issue amid tender and compassionate portrayals of a literary lion and his muse.