Originally Reviewed – 2/12/2010
Typically, I’m not a huge fan of the traditional biopic. Something about the stoic re-telling of a famous person’s life always seem self serving and over-indulgent…about as much as using the words “self serving” and “over-indulgent” in a movie review, but give me a pass, I just watched a movie about Leo Tolstoy. I reserve the right to be “verbose”! While The Last Station certainly falls into some of the traps that other films of this type do, those other films don’t have Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer sharing a screen together. And that, dear readers, makes all the difference in the world.
The Last Station takes place in the twilight years of Tolstoy’s life as he lives out his elder years surrounded by his wife (Mirren), his personal secretary and devotee (played by James McAvoy) and his financial advisor (played by Paul Giamatti). While the central plot of the film involves Giamatti’s attempts to have Tolstoy sign over ownership of his work to the Russian people, which would leave his wife in the cold financially, the real strength of the film is the relationship between Tolstoy and his wife. Watching Plummer and Mirren together on screen is electric and is the highlight of the movie.
When it comes to Plummer’s portrayal of Tolstoy, he plays the character with the dignity and respect you would expect from an actor of Plummer’s caliber. Tolstoy comes off as a quiet genius who has lived his fair share of life in the past but now has resigned himself to a life of self sacrifice. If the Russian people must suffer, so must he. Plummer’s portrayal of Tolstoy is honest, deceptively simple and works wonderfully.
Mirren, on the other hand, plays his wife, Sofya, with a ferocity and a passion that perfectly mirrors Tolstoy’s stoic nature. Sofya is almost Tolstoy’s opposite, a true lady who enjoys life, love and everything Tolstoy’s success has afforded them to have. Although Sofya and Tolstoy argue on a regular basis, simply because of their divergence in ideals, there is always an undercurrent of a true love for each other that lifts the movie from ordinary to excellent. Without giving anything away, the scene between the two when they are in the bedroom together is one of the sweetest scenes I’ve seen this year and cements the two as head strong characters who still share a deep love for one another.
As for the rest of the main cast, McAvoy does a nice job as Tolstoy’s idealist secretary who, after years of studying his work, finally has a chance to work for his idol. The role is an important one as he’s thrown in middle of both the financial and emotional tension between Sofya and Tolstoy. Being a young idealist, he tows the line between a true Tolstoyian and his deep desires for forbidden passions providing that emotional link the film desperately needs. Giamatti also does a fine job as the “villain” in the film, however, I felt his character was underwritten.
The rest of film follows the period piece / biopic formula to a tee, with all the expected strengths and pitfalls. While I applaud director Michael Hoffman for giving the actors a stage to simply work their magic without too much meddling, the script itself could have been livelier without the standard clichés and slow pacing of period piece writing. All in all, though, the unbelievable performances of both Mirren and Plummer elevate this film to required viewing status and will be enjoyed by anyone who can appreciate two actors at the top of their game.
Score – 80%