*The Last Station (R)
Kimball's Peak Three
There are moviegoers who use the Academy Award nominations as a guide for what not to miss in any given year. And then there are those who view that list with considerably more ... skepticism. Yet every fall and winter, the studios trot out their prestige-laden "Oscar bait" films, and every year the bait is gobbled up.
So, if you noticed The Last Station had received two Oscar acting nominations, and that it's about the last months of War and Peace author Leo Tolstoy's life in 1910 Russia, you could be forgiven for wondering if you'd rather take your nap at home. But, then you'd miss out on something with more charm and energy than you might expect.
Director/screenwriter Michael Hoffman — adapting the Jay Parini novel — begins with captions describing Tolstoy's "living saint" stature. Revered not just as a great writer but also as a social philosopher, the 81-year-old Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) has inspired a movement based on asceticism, pacifism and renunciation of private property. Among his young adherents is Valentin (James McAvoy), a would-be writer who relishes the opportunity to become Tolstoy's personal secretary.
But he's also encouraged to become part of the household by leading "Tolstoyan" Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who wants reports on the efforts of Tolstoy's wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren), to hold onto the family's assets rather than sign them over to the movement. Sofya, in turn, sees Valentin as an ally in finding out what Chertkov is plotting.
The duel of wills between Chertkov and Sofya — with the nervous, idealistic Valentin caught in the middle — becomes fodder for some broad comedy, which isn't necessarily where The Last Station is at its best.
Mirren, one of the aforementioned Oscar nominees, has a fun role as the overly dramatic Sofya, whose passions for her husband spill into rages over the fact that he'd even consider surrendering his family's inheritance. Granted, getting noticed as an actor is not difficult when you're smashing dishes and throwing yourself into the nearest lake. Mirren does, however, provide enough spark to make the rest of the film's content even more engaging. For instance, there's Valentin's relationship with Masha (Kerry Condon), a Tolstoyan with a less orthodox approach to the movement's tenets. Their romance serves as an entry point to an intriguing look at how quickly any movement can veer from focusing on underlying principles to nitpicking the trappings around those principles.
It's here that Plummer — the second acting nominee — really earns his honor. Unlike other philosophers who didn't live to see their ideas become fodder for bitter infighting, Tolstoy is already somewhat amused to see the commune's leaders becoming "better Tolstoyans than I am." He stands in a place between the attachments to people and things represented by Sofya and the abstracted fundamentalism of his followers that reveals the great man's anguish over the inability of either side to moderate itself toward the center.
That anguish eventually leads to an illness that's telegraphed by any number of coughing fits and a final act that descends into the kind of melodrama that the rest of the film manages to avoid. The Last Station is much more about finding the love at the core of all great movements, and at times radiates the warmth of that love. Only near the end does it turn into the kind of drama that the Oscar tag could lead you to fear it might be.