One can’t help feeling that the later life of one Russian literary giant plays like the work of another. For the domestic tribulations that beset Tolstoy in later life are the stuff of Chekhov: there’s the conflict between town and country, between the intellect and materialism, love and lust, as well as the sad spectacle of a creative talent languishing amidst petty squabbles. Like Chekhov, The Last Station is awash with egomania and folly. And it’s a hoot.
Based on the novel by Jay Parini, who drew on the diary entries of Tolstoy’s friends and relatives, it concerns the final months of the writer’s life and the almighty battle over his literary estate – between his wife, the Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren, and Valentin Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), the leader of his pacifist, Christian movement, the Tolstoyans, who believed that War and Peace and Anna Karenina ought to be bequeathed to the Russian people.
And so to Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) himself, whose sprawling country estate may seem the stuff of bucolic bliss, but becomes the venue for an ill-tempered battle of wits.
Parini’s dramatic device for entering this world is Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), a young, wide-eyed Tolstoyan, who can’t believe his luck when Chertkov appoints him as Tolstoy’s secretary. But what Chertkov really wants is a spy – though he doesn’t tell Valentin this, instead slyly suggesting that the young man keep a country diary.
When he reaches the country, Valentin is warmly welcomed by his jovial, down-to-earth hero (Christopher Plummer), but sized up suspiciously by the Countess, who also decides that the newcomer will be an ideal spy – for her – and also suggests he put pen to paper.
Thus the poor lad finds himself trapped between two massive egos, while having his own, more personal problems, namely the assault on his Tolstoyan desire for chastity by an amorous co-worker. His dream job quickly becomes a comic nightmare.
Plummer alternates between joie de vivre and an old man’s weariness at the folly of all around him, between a twinkle and a growl of rage.
Set in 1910, this could be the sort of literary, period piece – one without Dickensian drama or Austen romance – that flounders on the big screen. That it doesn’t, is down to a combination of a script (adapted by director Michael Hoffman) abuzz with intelligence and humour, and a superlative cast.
As the chief opponents for Tolstoy’s heart, mind and will, Mirren is at her imperious best – at once haughty and vulnerable, conniving and pathetic – and Giamatti suitably Machiavellian. The pair spit some marvellous bile at each other. To the Countess, her rival is a “fat little catamite”, while he opines: “If I had a wife like you, I would have blown my brains out and moved to America.”
Mirren has the hardest role in the film, having to convince us that, despite the greed-related histrionics, she does actually love her husband. She achieves this wonderfully well, and the film gains a sort of tragedy (also in keeping with Chekhov) in that Mirren and Plummer together suggest the deep well of genuine love and passion that is being drained by their material differences.
Plummer for me is the joy of the film. A sprightly 80-years-old, the Canadian shows no signs of slowing down. Building on the foundation of Tolstoy’s authoritative and inspirational character, he alternates between joie de vivre and an old man’s weariness at the folly of all around him, between a twinkle and a growl of rage. It’s a marvellous turn.
On this occasion, McAvoy is the selfless conduit through which fruitier performances flow. He no doubt would have cherished the opportunity to learn from old hands at the top of their game.
This review first appeared in The Sunday Herald