Movie Review: The Last Station

James McAvoy, Christopher Plummer
Photo courtesy of Stephen Rabold and Sony Pictures Classics

The Last Station opened on both coasts in 2009 and opens here today! It was worth the wait. (But I still wish they’d open movies in Las Vegas when they’re released elsewhere. I thought we are the “Entertainment Capitol.”)

Based on the wonderful novel by Jay Parini and adapted and directed by Michael Hoffman, this is the story of the novelist Leo Tolstoy’s last days. Set in 1910, it follows the dispute between his wife and Vladimir Chertkov, leader of a group that calls itself “Tolstoyans,” adhering the author’s stated beliefs in what, essentially, is communism — no private property, share and share alike and all that stuff. However Tolstoy’s wife, the Countess Sofya is furious at Chertkov, as he is trying to get her husband to cede the rights to his literary works, as well as to his estate, to “the people.”

While all this is going on, Chertkov has hired Valentin Bulgakov, a Tolstoyan who is to serve as the great one’s secretary. He moves to the Tolstoyan commune and quickly falls in love with Masha. He tries valiantly to follow Tolstoy’s rule about chastity, but fails.

With her husband falling more and more under the influence of the Tolstoyans, the wrath of Countess Sofya is, indeed, something to behold. She is, by turns, loving, fierce and overwhelmingly determined to save her husband and his work from these people. Finally, he can stand it no longer.

Christopher Plummer, age 80, plays Tolstoy with a great deal of charm. He is an astonishing actor and it is great fun to see him here. (Although why he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor remains a mystery to me.) Helen Mirren is Countess Sofya and she’s a wonder, doing what she does so well, playing the woman of a certain age who has lost none of her drive, passion and brain power. (She, fittingly, is up for a Best Actress award and it is deserved.) Paul Giamatti is Chertkov, literally twirling his moustache so we know he’s a bad guy. But he looks like he’s having fun. James McAvoy is the secretary, looking, as he tends to, all brand new and shiny. Kerry Condon’s Masha is earthy, sexy and all woman. She’s fun to watch, too.

The Last Station’s flaw is that there’s no verve, no joy, in these people’s lives. Small points: All these Russians — even the one Giamatti plays — have British accents and no one, it seems, except for one sign painter, uses the Cyrillic alphabet when writing. Kind of odd. But, with the performances, the interesting story and, yes, the nice period touches, I’d recommend it.