The Last Station
Grand gestures: Mirren leads ‘Last Station’ cast on an entertainingly over-the-top ride
What Helen Mirren does in “The Last Station’’ can’t really be called overacting. It’s something bigger: emotional action painting, maybe, or symphonic installation art. If you’re uncomfortable with the grand gesture, her performance may make you look away in embarrassment, the way you do from a drunk at a party. Too much. Too, too much.
But that too-muchness is its glory and its entertainment and, besides, Mirren is letting her diva hair down the better to play a diva: Countess Sofya Andreyevna Tolstoy, spoiled and beleaguered wife of Leo Tolstoy, author of “War and Peace.’’ The countess is the sort of woman who doesn’t exist without an audience, and what actor can resist that?
The countess isn’t even the central character of “The Last Station,’’ which has been robustly adapted by writer-director Michael Hoffman from Jay Parini’s 1990 novel about the Russian author’s final months. The movie’s a chocolate box of nougaty performances, from Christopher Plummer’s delightful depiction of Tolstoy as a ribald old naïf to Paul Giamatti twirling his waxed mustache and playing to the gallery as Vladimir Chertkov, Tolstoy’s secretary and rival with the countess for the great man’s legacy.
In the middle - literally, since each side asks him to spy on the other - is James McAvoy as the young and ardent Valentin Bulgakov, hired as the writer’s secretary when Chertkov is put under house arrest by the czar’s police. McAvoy has played too many of these weak-kneed neophytes before, but “The Last Station’’ gives him more than usual to chew on, and the character gratifyingly grows in inner strength and outer confidence. Bulgakov (like the others, an actual historical figure) is a witness to history but he’s not a sap.
The movie explores the chaotic time period just before World War I when Russia was roiling with visionaries and crackpots. With his published calls for universal peace, chastity, women’s freedom, and the abolishment of private property, the 82-year-old Tolstoy was the most famous of the nation’s utopians, with communes full of devoted “Tolstoyans’’ hanging on his every word. “I don’t think he’s Christ,’’ says Tolstoy’s doctor (John Sessions), who jots everything he sees into a little notebook for posterity. “Christ is Christ. I do believe he’s a prophet, though.’’
Who owns this man - the world or his wife? “The Last Station’’ is about the tug-of-war between idealism and pragmatism, fame and privacy, the nobility of the soul and the delights of the flesh. It’s obvious which side the film’s on: When the prim Bulgakov, staying at the commune near Tolstoy’s estate, meets a strapping young woman named Masha (Kerry Condon, with the devil in her eye), it’s a matter of time before she puts down her ax and picks up his pulse rate. The film contrasts the pleasures of young lust with the rich, knowing intimacy of married love, with sequences between the author and his wife that convey a lifetime’s experience in a couple’s coded private language.
At the same time, the countess is forced to woo her husband on a daily basis, since the sycophants crowding around Tolstoy are urging him to give his worldly goods, including the copyright to “War and Peace,’’ to the Russian people. She’s the lone aristocrat in a classless household - even her daughter (Anne-Marie Duff) is a stiff-backed Tolstoyan - and Mirren makes the countess’s pathetic attempts to cling to her position comical and moving to both Bulgakov and us.
“The Last Station’’ is potted movie history - it’s one of those ripely adorned productions where all the Russians speak with impeccable British accents - but as a show it’s just about irresistible. The dialogue is often explosively funny, and Hoffman has knowledge of when to lay off the melodrama and when to dig in. McAvoy’s character isn’t a distraction for once but increasingly central to the story’s meaning, our guide in navigating the moral thickets surrounding Tolstoy’s final days. Plummer is so serene an actor by now that he can intertwine the saintliness and goatishness of Lev Nikolayevich without strain.
But it’s Mirren who drives you nuts and breaks your heart, playing an aggravating, volcanic woman who slowly comes to understand it’s no longer about her, if indeed it ever was. When we arrive at the last station of the title, the movie slows down and breaks out the handkerchiefs; the exuberance of the early scenes vanishes in a haze of national mourning. The last one to concede to the inevitable is the countess, kicking and screaming almost to the end. History may not need such women, but actresses and audiences surely do.