Eavesdropping on Tolstoy in The Last Station

Michael Hoffman's nimble biopic bursts with lively characters and relevant ideas

Although The Last Station depicts Leo Tolstoy’s last days in 1910, the nimble biopic’s critique of the media spotlight rings true a century later. Men with cumbersome film equipment camp out on the front yard of Tolstoy’s manor to chronicle the comings and goings of the War and Peace author (Christopher Plummer) and his wife, Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren). Friends and hangers-on jot down the Tolstoys’ table conversations, while transcontinental newspapers report the latest gossip. It’s like modern-day bloggers and paparazzi moving at the speed of telegraph. One imagines Gawker-style headlines: “Sofya pwns Toltoyan fanboys!”

Adapted from Jay Parini’s novel by writer/director Michael Hoffman, The Last Station suggests that the whole world eavesdrops on the characters’ battles over Tolstoy’s legacy. The leader of an idealistic movement, Tolstoy despises private property and considers bequeathing his works’ copyright to the public domain. His loyal adviser and proto-spin doctor Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) suggests his books belong to the world, but the Countess dreads being pauperized after her husband’s death. She also envies the attention Tolstoy lavishes on Vladimir and uses her feminine wiles to draw her husband’s head out of the clouds.

In the middle of this literary tug-of-war is Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), Tolstoy’s naïve, idealistic new secretary. Chertkov and the Countess each give him a new diary, with the tacit assumption that Valentin will serve as a spy for their rival interests. For The Last Station’s first half, McAvoy overplays the young man’s awkward enthusiasm and comes across as a helpless ninny: “I sneeze when I get nervous!” he explains, eyes watering. As a fellow adherent of Tolstoy’s, Kerry Condon soon tests Valentin’s vow of celibacy, and their romance overly amplifies the film’s themes about the value of love.

The Last Station spends less time imitating Tolstoy’s weighty, epic novels than it does the bittersweet comedies of Anton Chekhov, which also chronicle the different generations and social classes at pastoral Russian estates. Oscar nominees Plummer and Mirren warmly convey the couple’s lifelong ardor, but also the irreconcilable passion that drives them apart. Giamatti prevents toadying Vladimir from becoming a one-dimensional villain, even as he literally twirls his waxy, curlicue mustaches.

Compared to the stately pace of most biopics, especially those that involve a historical figure facing death, The Last Station bursts with lively characters and playful, relevant ideas. Regrettably, Tolstoy spends his last days enduring a household war and precious little peace.