Mirren, Plummer are a fiery pair
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Feb. 05, 2010
Helen Mirren has just won an Oscar nomination for her performance in "The Last Station," and it's easy to see why. The British actress brings all her vinegary spirit and lustiness to her performance as Sofya Tolstoy, wife of the famed Russian author Leo (Christopher Plummer), and, as the film would have it, both the balm and bane of his existence.
As Tolstoy himself wrote, happy families are all alike; the Tolstoys, on the other hand, are a doozy. "The Last Station," based on Jay Parini's novel (which itself was based on the subjects' diaries) concerns the final year of Tolstoy's life, when he was living at his family estate in near-constant battle with Sofya over his publishing copyright: he wanted to give it to the Russian people; she thought it rightfully belonged with the family.
Plummer, nearly unrecognizable under Tolstoy's familiar snowy white beard, also received a nomination for his role, but it's Mirren who gets to chew the scenery between trips to the samovar, in scenes shot through with brittle dismissals of his Christian ideals and bits of high operatic drama. At one point Sofya even hurls herself-- well, actually slowly rolls -- off a dock in order to drown herself.
That's just one of the many feints, parries and momentary histrionics that comprise "The Last Station," which also features Paul Giamatti as Tolstoy disciple Vladimir Chertkov, Sofya's chief rival for Tolstoy's affections. While these two formidable warriors engage in an epic battles of wills over Tolstoy's own will (material or emotional, take your pick), they're observed by newly minted Tolstoyan Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), who has just signed on to be the master's private secretary.
Even though "The Last Station" has to do with Tolstoy, it seems far more inspired by Anton Chekhov, with its suffering aristocratic family and a matriarch desperately clinging to a disappearing way of life. Mirren and Plummer are wonderful together, and their portrayal of a long marriage -- still fueled by physical desire nearly 50 years on -- has a refreshing carnal zing.
If the operatic emotional pitch ultimately proves unsustainable (not to mention tiresome), the film is full of captivating details. Most interesting is director Michael Hoffman's depiction of the couple as the Brangelina of their age, their every movement noted and recorded by an entourage of acolytes, journalists, filmmakers and sundry hangers-on. Tolstoy himself remains an oddly blurry figure throughout, which may speak to the character's genuine ambivalence; at its best, "The Last Station" vividly illustrates the enduring Russian gift for iconography, whether spiritual, secular or something in between.
Contains a scene of sexuality and nudity.