Let’s face facts: a film that traces Leo Tolstoy’s march to the grave and his beleaguered marriage to wife Countess Sofya is up against it in an Avatar world.
Hazarding a guess, most filmgoers know little about the Russian author’s life and probably aren’t inclined to fill that gap without strong dramatic incentive.
The Last Station falls between two stools: neither cerebral enough to unpack Tolstoy’s legacy, nor involving enough to satisfy frock-opera fans. But taken as an acting showcase, Michael Hoffman’s film does deliver some treats.
While Tolstoy’s (Christopher Plummer) wife of 48 years (Helen Mirren) clings to their aristocratic existence, ruthless acolyte Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) urges Leo to leave the rights to his literary masterworks to the Russian people, and his wife and children with nothing.
To help, Chertkov dispatches the priggish Valentin (James McAvoy) to the dying man’s estate to spy. Hoffman, who’s always ploughed his career down the middlefurrow (One Fine Day, A Midsummer’s Night Dream), is fortunate to have two actors whose scenes together spark the film to scintillating life.
It’s the McAvoy-Mirren show, with the Wanted man again showing off his sensitive, soulful skills (he even makes swooning over Tolstoy’s letters convincing), while Mirren drags us on a bumpy but mesmerising voyage of wounded hysteria – fiery and fearless, Station stalls when she’s off screen.
As for Plummer, he’s all cranky charm as Tolstoy, while Giamatti makes a lip-smackingly oily plotter. Hoffman manages to mine some gentle humour – this Tolstoy is a randy old goat who rubbishes the celibacy practiced in his name – and finds moments of intimate respite among the tangled intrigue.
From a design standpoint, too, Station makes lushly scenic viewing. But idyllic agrarian communes and powerhouse acting can’t stop it being an incomplete portrait of the literary giant.