It is 1910, the last year of Count Lev Nikolayevitch (Leo) Tolstoy’s life. He is 82 years old and his writing days are behind him. His work was so popular that he gained followers — nowadays they’d be called fanboys — who were known as Tolstoyans. One of the main tenets of the Tolstoyans was to shun private wealth, and it is on that principle that The Last Station is based. Tolstoy was guided and influenced, in his later years, by Vladimir Chertkov, a devout follower determined to follow the tenet to the letter, and Chertkov wants the great author to change his will to benefit the commune: Currently Tolstoy’s houses, wealth and copyrights are to be handed to his wife of forty-eight years, Sofya. Sofya has borne Tolstoy thirteen children and feels — with some justification, I reckon — that she and her family are entitled.
Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) hires a PA, basically, to work for Tolstoy, but also to keep a diary. The Countess, he explains, is a very dangerous lady, and Chertkov wants the skinny at all times. The secretary, Valentin Bulgakov, is a devout Tolstoyan himself and is thrilled to enter the Tolstoy family circle. However, Sofya then requests that Bulgakov keep a diary for her too, because she trusts Chertkov about as far as she can throw him.
And so begins a beautifully-shot, well-acted but ultimately meaningless movie. Christopher Plummer, as Leo, and Helen Mirren as the Countess seize the opportunity to parade their acting chops and do so in fine style. Perfectly at ease with each other (as you would expect from a couple married for nearly half a century), the aging couple are a joy to watch, and almost distract the viewer from the realization that an awful lot nothing is going on. James McEvoy plays Bulgakov well enough, but still struggles with the English accent at times — the ‘oo’ phoneme does rather betray his Glaswegian roots. However, he does get to share a bed with Tolstoyan commune inhabitant Masha (Kerry Condon) in a completely pointless side-story. Talk about a whirlwind courtship: They meet one day, they argue the next, by the third day she’s in bed with him, and before the week is out they’re both hopelessly in love. Too bad for them, since Tolstoyism rejects carnal desires. As luck would have it, though, there’s enough melodrama occurring elsewhere that a mere bending of one of the movement’s main principles can apparently be glossed over.
The Last Station does a lot of glossing over, actually. In truth, there were actually six diarists documenting Tolstoy’s life at this time, and it is through those six that Jay Parini’s novel came to life. Because these actions were captured on paper, it seems to me that director Michael Hoffman thought that he had carte blanche to take liberties with the re-telling of them. Instead, we are left to scratch our heads at the deeds and actions of the characters. Continuity, too, had me wondering if I’d imagined things — was Bulgakov able to traverse the country by train at dizzying speeds, faster even than his whirlwind courtship?
As I’ve already mentioned, The Last Station looks beautiful, with truly stunning landscapes and exceptional mises-en-scene, the best I’ve seen for some time. A great deal of credit should go to the German art production team for their perfect recreation of the period. Sadly their efforts, and those of two exceptional lead actors, do not save this from being a rather beautiful yet empty vessel.