I enjoyed Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station when I was watching it, but as Lieutenant Columbo would say, I’ve got a problem. The basic plot concerns an aging Leo Tolstoy, his wife Countess Sofya, and the tense situation that arises when it becomes apparent that Tolstoy plans to leave his writings (and future royalties) to all of Russia–albeit in the care of Chertkov, an unctuous Tolstoy worshipper—rather than to his own privileged wife and family.
This fierce three-way tug of war is unexpectedly complicated by another Tolstoy disciple who has arrived at Tolstoy’s estate (at Chertkov’s bidding) to spy on the couple. Here is my problem: Hoffman’s screenplay, based on Jay Parini’s novel (which is loosely based on Tolstoy’s last days) provides a set-up which leads to developments that are hardly plausible. Case in point: the Countess, both in the writing and in Helen Mirren’s playing, is so intelligent, so on to the devious Chertkov’s (cue mustache-twirling Paul Giammatti) machinations, and so aware of how to use her womanly wiles (damn, she still looks great) to get her wavering husband to listen to her—that the Countess’ subsequent repeated emotional tantrums that alienate Tolstoy are almost out of character. Additionally, Plummer’s Tolstoy seems so in love with his wife, so aware of his own failings, so aware of the sycophantic nature of the “Tolstoyan” movement, that his later decisions are hard to fathom. In spite of these caveats, there is much to enjoy: flavorful, full-bodied, even touching portrayals by Mirren and Plummer that try to overcome the script’s weaknesses; engaging performances (in a stock situation) from James McAvoy as the Chertkov pawn who turns on his master and Kerry Condon as Masha who helps McAvoy embrace the physical nature of love; and a convincing feel for the period. It’s worth a look—mainly for Mirren and Plummer.