“The Last Station” may well be the greatest film ever made about a feud over copyrights.
Leo Tolstoy’s wife helped him write “War and Peace,” and she copied the 1,225-page book by hand six times. She also bore him 13 children, but was denied physical contact once he embraced chastity, in contrast with his “depraved youth.”
So it’s no small wonder that after almost a half-century of marriage, Sofia Andreyevna had expectations of entitlement upon the impending death of Lev Nikolayevich, especially the copyright to the works of the world’s most famous writer.
Just to thicken the (real-life) plot, Countess Tolstoy was an unbearable drama queen who both truly loved her husband and pretty much hounded him to death.
Is it possible for anyone to play this role? Oscar-nominated Helen Mirren does, giving the best performance of her royally distinguished career.
In “The Last Station,” writer-director Michael Hoffman (“One Fine Day,” “Restoration”) wonderfully chronicles those confusing and dramatic days in 1910 in Tolstoy’s hometown of Yasnaya Polyana, and in a small railroad station in far-away Astapovo (located in what was later named the Lev-Tolstovsky District).
In a desperate flight from Sofia, that was where Tolstoy died. It’s also the location where Christopher Plummer (a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee playing Tolstoy) has a truly magnificent scene.
While Hoffman’s script (based on Jay Parini’s 1990 novel) and direction are excellent, “The Last Station” also has an amazing cast beyond Mirren and Plummer.
The protagonist is James McAvoy as Valentin Bulgakov, Tolstoy’s young assistant who would later create an encyclopedia of Russian writers. McAvoy, so powerful and subtle in “The Last King of Scotland,” is equally effective in this role.
Paul Giamatti, surprising to see in the British cast, is exactly right as a leader of the local community who’s ruthless in his noble cause to persuade Tolstoy to leave his entire estate to the Russian people.
Anne-Marie Duff plays Tolstoy’s daughter, caught between her warring parents. And Kerry Condon (Octavia in HBO’s “Rome”) is Masha, who becomes Bulgakov’s lover and conscience.
“The Last Station” is that rare, nearly two-hour-long movie that you’d like to go on and on.
The Last Station
Three and a half stars
Starring Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti
Written and directed by Michael Hoffman
Running time 1 hour 52 minutes