The Death of Lev Nikolayevich
The Last Station imagines Tolstoy's final days as picturesque melodrama
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is--well, surely you know the rest. That's the problem with writer/director Michael Hoffman's entertainingly brisk The Last Station. Hoffman wants to show how an unhappy family--that of Leo Tolstoy in 1910, by which point the 82-year-old Russian writer was rock-star revered as a religious figure--was unhappy in its own way, but in the process the movie runs aground of the pat and familiar. It becomes a fairly conventional palace intrigue inside a noble family, complete with members and court hangers-on conspiring for control--of Tolstoy's legacy and its subsequent income.
It's a story witnessed through the eyes of the enthusiastic Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), a handsome young writer sent from Moscow to the countryside near Tolstoy's Yasnaya Polyana family estate to be the author's secretary. Valentin is a Tolstoyan, a follower of the resistance philosophy that Tolstoy (a hirsute Christopher Plummer, looking like dime-store Santa Claus gone Joanna Newsom freak folkie) has explored later in his life, such as the short meditations in his The Kingdom of God is Within You, which encourage pursuing a life freed from the worldly trappings of the church and government. (The Tolstoyan are historically considered Christian anarchists, which the movie doesn't suggest.) The movement is led by Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giammati), Tolstoy's good friend. During his employ, Valentin is to stay at the Tolstoyan commune nearby, and upon first arrival he's led around the grounds by a severe Tolstoyan. "It's a beautiful day," Valentin offers to his guide in perfunctory small talk. "Yes," the guide concedes, "but we'll pay for it."
Alas, so will the movie's viewers. Hoffman, whose serio-comic touch in period pieces such as 1995's Restoration or 1999's A Midsummer Night's Dream made those movies such patently inoffensive middlebrow entertainments, winningly spices Station with scenes of outright mirth and anxious melodrama, resulting in a hothouse flower whose tone shifts every few scenes. The frenetic Valentin is nervously sneezing one minute whenever he's near the lovely commune worker Masha (Irishwoman Kerry Condon, who one day will be given a film role she can sink her considerable chops into), the next he's shocked by something flying out of the mouth of Tolstoy's wife, Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren)--such as informing Valentin that his celibacy-advocating Tolstoy was drinking and whoring it up in the Caucasus in his youth.
Meanwhile, Valentin is supposed to be a double agent of sorts. Chertkov wants Valentin to keep a journal of all conversations that go on in the house, particularly any of those involving Sofya. She, in turn, takes a shine to the jittery young man and asks him to take notes of his times with Tolstoy and Chertkov. At stake is a new will Chertkov has drawn up, which bequeaths Tolstoy royalties to the "movement"; Sofya wants Tolstoy, whose health steadily declines, to make sure she, a woman who bore him 13 children--five of which didn't make it--and their offspring are taken care of after his passing. Chertkov and Sofya are the two most important people in Tolstoy's life and they loathe each other.
It makes for a spirited affair, but only the occasional kosovorotka shirt and Russian diminutive ground its time and place. With this lively cast--of game Brits (Condon, Anne-Marie Duff as Tolstoy's daughter, and McAvoy), a stately Canadian (Plummer), veteran American stage actor (Giammati), and a bona fide goddess (Mirren)--wittily bantering in and around an airy country estate, Last Station moves with the courtly verve of a British costume drama. When Sofya and Tolstoy are having one of their formidably spirited arguments at the outdoor table you half expect Cecil Vyse to wander in from E.M. Forster's A Room With a View to tsk-tsk everybody for being so outwardly emotive.
At least the put-upon Sofya is played by Mirren, who has become so good at turning script lead into screen gold that she could score an Oscar nom with your cocker spaniel's latest screenplay. Sofya bipolar bounces from steely verbal fencer when facing Chertkov to a female figure straight out of Freud, firing a gun at photos, throwing herself into a lake, smashing plates on the dinner table, and acting the general hysterical fool. Mirren never allows Sofya to skate into soap-opera kitsch, though, which is what keeps this matriarch such a grounded, galvanizing force. During a bedroom scene, Sofya first bickers with Tolstoy before talking him back into being the man she's loved for 48 years, and soon they're acting as adorably affectionate as newlyweds. It's a moment that not only has more vitality than anything else here, but offers the beautifully mundane suggestion that even in unhappy families, a happy couple can still be happy in its own way.