Russia: 1910. With the First World War and the Russian Revolution still a few years off, ageing War and Peace author Leo Tolstoy (Plummer) might be expected to be enjoying a peaceful retirement. In fact, torn between the conflicting demands of his strong willed wife Countess Sofya (Mirren) and those of his increasingly zealous Tolstoyan followers, the authors life is barely less turbulent than the events of one of his great novels.
The Last Station is less about Tolstoy himself than the plethora of character surrounding him. The most sympathetic is perhaps young Valentin Bulgarov (McAvoy) a brainy but self conscious acolyte of the author who arrives at the Tolstoy Estate as his new private secretary. Yet he soon finds his loyalties divided. Should he side with the clique effectively led by his boss Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti) in attempting to build a personality cult around the author or to the more reasonable wishes of Tolstoys undeniably unstable wife?
For a film dealing with such weighty issues, the first half of The Last Station is remarkably cheery stuff. Perhaps wary of scaring off his audience, director Hoffman devotes much screen time to the sneezing and reticent McAvoys tentative relationship with ballsy proto-feminist Masha (Condon). Only in the second half, does the films mood darken to a suitably more sombre state, yet the change is so dramatic (McAvoys character also transforming overnight) that it unbalances the film.
The film is beautifully acted, however, Plummer almost looking like an American reincarnation of Tolstoy at times and Mirren equally great as his long suffering spouse, a woman clearly prone to emotional volatility (expressed through occasional gunplay and chicken impressions) but who nevertheless has good reason to feel aggrieved.
The accompanying commentary and interviews give some insight into a project which was apparently in the pipeline for around twenty years. But ultimately its a problem of tone. Too lightweight in the first half, while too melancholy (and despite dramatic events, frankly, dull) in the second, somehow The Last Station never quite scales the epic heights it threatens to achieve.
Overall Verdict: Great performances elevate a film which falls just short of Tolstoyan brilliance itself.
Interview with Director Michael Hoffman
Conversations on The Last Station Featurette
Reviewer: Chris Hallam