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Yes, that’s Helen Mirren peeping through the window: (l-r) Giamatti and Plummer in The Last Station.

Thespians!

By Shawn Stone

The Last Station

Directed by Michael Hoffman

 

It may be presented as a serious costume drama about the last days of a great novelist and philosopher, but The Last Station is one of the more enjoyably brainless flicks to come along in quite a while.

Based on a novel by Jay Parini, The Last Station chronicles the decline and death of Russian literary master Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer). By this time, frail old Count Tolstoy—who isn’t exactly thrilled about being a count anymore—has given up literature for social activism. The movement he’s founded, referred to here as “Tolstoyism,” is all about hard work, modesty, poverty, chastity, community and equality. His chief acolyte, Chertkov (Paul Giamatti, hilarious as the archetypical angry prig), pushes this philosophy with clammy religious fervor.

This does not please the mercurial Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren), who fears that her now-high-minded husband will give away the considerable family fortune to these crackpots. The Tolstoy estate is lousy with Chertkov’s spies, and—even worse—newspaper reporters and newsreel cameramen. (It’s 1910.) The countess feels overwhelmed, and sets about to win over her husband’s new secretary (and Chertkov’s latest emissary), one Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy, again playing the innocent).

This isn’t a battle of ideas, however. The action may be set at a moment when Russia was five years past one failed revolution and seven years away from another successful one, but you’d never know it from this flick. Tolstoy may have had some important ideas, but his movement is here reduced to an army of prigs advocating boring do-gooder crap. Real social issues barely get the once-over; the film’s hot conflict is between people who like having sex and pious reformers who don’t.

Which is kinda dumb, but still makes for OK entertainment. The reason? The actors playing the people who like sex are Mirren and Plummer and McAvoy and Kerry Condon (as free-spirited Masha, who takes the secretary’s cherry). And no one, Giamatti included, leaves a single piece of scenery unchewed.

Mirren’s joyous, barnyard-esque seduction of the old count is worth the price of admission, but most of the time she plays the countess as being in a constant state of hysteria. One moment she’s barely in control; the next she’s raging around the dining room table smashing plates. Either way, Mirren’s a scary delight. And Plummer is more than her match: His Tolstoy is a lion in winter, and Plummer suggests depths of feeling and intellect entirely missing from most of the movie. (They both deserve their Oscar nominations.)

Tolstoy’s end is really quite tragic, and the film’s final shift in tone seems a tad abrupt. By failing to credibly dramatize Tolstoy’s egalitarian philosophy, the final shots of weeping peasants are rendered baffling. Thank goodness the young lovers are able to deliver a final clinch for the occasion.


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