When I saw the trailer for the Leo Tolstoy picture The Last Station, I felt a pang of sadness for Christopher Plummer, still trying to get out from under The Sound of Music after all these years. The new film stars, we're told in great big letters, Academy Award winner Helen Mirren, Academy Award nominee Paul Giamatti and...Christopher Plummer.
Well, Plummer has his Oscar nomination now, for this performance, and it's deserved. He sinks his teeth into the role of Tolstoy, a Great Man whose beliefs everyone around him argues about endlessly, even as he serenely putters around his grand estate in peasant garb. Well, sometimes he's serene. At other times he roars in anger and frustration, especially at his wife, Sofya (Mirren), who's painfully, screamingly jealous of the acolytes who surround the novelist and philosopher and write down his every word.
Movies aren't great for conveying philosophical frameworks, and director and writer Michael Hoffman doesn't get into many details of Tolstoy's plan for living. We hear bits and pieces. God is love. Don't kill insects. And this is fine. For dramatic purposes, the point is that Tolstoy has captivated a great many people, including his scheming lieutenant Chertkov (Giamatti), a commune full of people who abstain from sex and chop wood, and a young follower named Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy).
We see Tolstoy through Valentin's eyes. In fact, the film is as much about the young man's coming of age as it is about the Tolstoys, though McAvoy's sweet, understated performance gets swallowed up by the incredible histrionics of Plummer and Mirren. In 1910, Valentin is sent by Chertkov to live with the Tolstoys and write down everything said by Sofya, who's Chertkov's bitter enemy. What's at stake? Chertkov wants Tolstoy to assign his writing to the public domain, for the spiritual enrichment of everyone, but Sofya thinks the works' revenue ought to benefit the family.
So it's off to the Tolstoy estate for Valentin, who weeps in Tolstoy's mere presence and falls hard for the jaded commune resident Masha (Kerry Condon). She's impatient with the commune's rigidity and thinks Tolstoy's followers are missing what's truly important. Masha and Valentin's mutinous bedroom scenes together are sexy and lovely.
The last station of the title is the railroad depot in Astapovo, Russia, where an ill Tolstoy lived his final hours. The scenes at Astapovo are dramatic - and in truth, much of what comes before them isn't all that dramatic, despite the yelling. But in its glimpses at a fascinating man, and at the waning years of tsarist Russia, The Last Station has its rewards.