Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren in the arresting biopic, "The Last Station." (Stephan Rabold)
History, expectation, age and idealism collide to good effect in "The Last Station," which follows the final months of Leo Tolstoy.
Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer, in a rich performance) is the most famous writer alive in his latter years. Indeed, a social movement of "Tolstoyans," led by Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), sprouts up espousing celibacy and love for all things in the writer's name.
As the film begins, a young Tolstoyan named Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) has just been handed the job of the writer's personal secretary. What he finds when he meets the great man is a domestic life filled with fury, most of which is generated by Tolstoy's longtime wife and muse Sofya (Helen Mirren, on all burners).
Sofya is concerned that her husband is about to give away the rights to his books -- thus letting "the people" have free access to them -- a move that may mean financial ruin for the family.
"The Last Station" then becomes a battle between a protective wife and an aggressive adviser as the grand master's age hangs over everything, with young Valentin's idealism taking a series of blows as he's caught in the middle.
Obviously this is a uniformly fine cast; and Kerry Condon adds a bit of spice as a Tolstoyan beauty who steals Valentin's heart.
Director and writer Michael Hoffman, adapting Jay Parini's novel, lets the history play out, and this little-known chapter plays out nicely indeed.
Mirren gives the film a slightly crazed urgency while Plummer offers a powerful portrait of serenity disturbed. They fight, laugh, manipulate and ultimately share as only longtime lovers can.
And in the end, "The Last Station" shows a great man to be human after all.