that’s Helen Mirren peeping through the window: (l-r)
Giamatti and Plummer in The Last Station.
by Michael Hoffman
It may be presented as a serious costume drama about the last
days of a great novelist and philosopher, but The Last
Station is one of the more enjoyably brainless flicks
to come along in quite a while.
Based on a novel by Jay Parini, The Last Station chronicles
the decline and death of Russian literary master Leo Tolstoy
(Christopher Plummer). By this time, frail old Count Tolstoy—who
isn’t exactly thrilled about being a count anymore—has given
up literature for social activism. The movement he’s founded,
referred to here as “Tolstoyism,” is all about hard work,
modesty, poverty, chastity, community and equality. His chief
acolyte, Chertkov (Paul Giamatti, hilarious as the archetypical
angry prig), pushes this philosophy with clammy religious
This does not please the mercurial Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren),
who fears that her now-high-minded husband will give away
the considerable family fortune to these crackpots. The Tolstoy
estate is lousy with Chertkov’s spies, and—even worse—newspaper
reporters and newsreel cameramen. (It’s 1910.) The countess
feels overwhelmed, and sets about to win over her husband’s
new secretary (and Chertkov’s latest emissary), one Valentin
Bulgakov (James McAvoy, again playing the innocent).
This isn’t a battle of ideas, however. The action may be set
at a moment when Russia was five years past one failed revolution
and seven years away from another successful one, but you’d
never know it from this flick. Tolstoy may have had some important
ideas, but his movement is here reduced to an army of prigs
advocating boring do-gooder crap. Real social issues barely
get the once-over; the film’s hot conflict is between people
who like having sex and pious reformers who don’t.
Which is kinda dumb, but still makes for OK entertainment.
The reason? The actors playing the people who like sex are
Mirren and Plummer and McAvoy and Kerry Condon (as free-spirited
Masha, who takes the secretary’s cherry). And no one, Giamatti
included, leaves a single piece of scenery unchewed.
Mirren’s joyous, barnyard-esque seduction of the old count
is worth the price of admission, but most of the time she
plays the countess as being in a constant state of hysteria.
One moment she’s barely in control; the next she’s raging
around the dining room table smashing plates. Either way,
Mirren’s a scary delight. And Plummer is more than her match:
His Tolstoy is a lion in winter, and Plummer suggests depths
of feeling and intellect entirely missing from most of the
movie. (They both deserve their Oscar nominations.)
Tolstoy’s end is really quite tragic, and the film’s final
shift in tone seems a tad abrupt. By failing to credibly dramatize
Tolstoy’s egalitarian philosophy, the final shots of weeping
peasants are rendered baffling. Thank goodness the young lovers
are able to deliver a final clinch for the occasion.