'Last Station' offers a look at the war, peace of Tolstoy's life

The Last Station (R)

3 out of 4 stars

Considering how colorful most of their lives were and how much material they've provided to filmmakers over the years, it's odd that nobody has yet to make a full-blown biography about a famous writer.

Shakespeare, Hemingway, O'Neill, Salinger, Williams, Andersen, Dickens, Tolkien, Nabokov, the Bronte sisters ... the list could go on for days and yet there have been no major motion pictures made about them. Before writing a rebuttal letter, take note that "Shakespeare in Love" was a throwaway work of fiction.

"The Last Station" won't exactly cure this ill but it does take a big step in the right direction with the man who wrote, according to some, the first and third most important novels of all-time.

Long before and up until his death in 1910, the Russian writer Lev (in English, "Leo") Tolstoy was probably the most famous living person in the world. "War & Peace" and "Anna Karenina" alone made him filthy rich at a time and in a country where wealth was taboo.

"The Last Station" covers little about Tolstoy's life and more concerns itself with his ideals and the effect his net worth had on his family and followers. It also provides an excellent precursor into the birth of communism.

As the movie opens, it's clear that Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) knows he's on his way out. Simultaneously impressed and embarrassed by his own legend, Tolstoy would like nothing more than to live out his final days working quietly and kicking back on his spacious countryside estate but neither his wife Sophia (Helen Mirren) nor the assorted circling sycophants will let him.

The mother of his 13 children, Sophia had good reason to worry about what Tolstoy was considering regarding his estate. With little of his backing and none of his efforts, a "Tolstoyian" type of cult was created, one that professed shared wealth, sexual abstinence and a "green" mentality a century before it came into vogue.

Spearheading this movement was Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), a guy who questionably worshipped Tolstoy and viewed Sophia as a bothersome roadblock. To remedy Sophia, Chertkov hired Tolstoy devotee Valentin (James McAvoy) as the writer's personal secretary in the hopes that Valentin could usurp her intrusive overtures by acting as a pseudo-inside agent.

Director and co-writer Michael Hoffman frames the film with a Merchant-Ivory type of mindset. Impeccably fussy set and costume designs provide the backdrop for sometimes frantic passages where the principals argue the points of a soon-to-be-dead-man's life after he's gone — while he's breathing and still in the room with them.

All of it is alternately troubling and humorous and never less than riveting and shows us that premature "dead hero worship" didn't start with Elvis or Michael Jackson. Tolstoy might have been the world's first rock star.

Mirren more than deserves her current Oscar nomination for her performance. Once Sophia realizes she might come out on the short end of the stick, she will stop at nothing to further her cause and, to Mirren's credit, is still able to retain her dignity.

For his part, Plummer maintains a sort of outsider's bemusement and never lets his character slip into a state of mawkish self-reverence. He pushes the tongue-in-cheek approach to its limits.

Surprisingly, the usually dependable Giamatti and McAvoy are the weak links here — which is mostly due to the script. Both of their characters are broadly written and are left little room for nuance. This is especially troublesome for Giamatti who can't raise an eyebrow without emitting volumes of intent and emotion, whether he wants to or not.

While only a thumbnail sketch in the life of one of literature's most enigmatic figures, "The Last Station" is a most worthwhile effort and an excellent showcase for the sublime talents of Plummer and Mirren. Both of them could read a phone book aloud and still make it sound interesting. (Sony Pictures Classics)