A lavish costume drama about the final months in the life of Leo Tolstoy, The Last Station treats the author’s end as a tragi-comedy, with the emphasis more on boisterous comedy than sombre tragedy. The result – directed by Michael Hoffman from the 1990 novel by Jay Parini – is an enjoyable if shallow romp, and a showcase for showy star turns by Christopher Plummer, as Tolstoy, and Helen Mirren, as his long-suffering wife Sofya.
In 1910, when the film takes place, the octogenarian author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina is the most famous writer in the world and his ascetic philosophy of life has gained him legions of followers. James McAvoy’s idealistic Valentin Bulgakov is one such ‘Tolstoyan’ and it’s through his eyes that we observe the sometimes-farcical tussle over the writer’s legacy.
Hired as Tolstoy’s secretary, the priggish Bulgakov finds himself caught in the middle of a battle between Paul Giamatti’s smarmy Tolstoyan-in-chief, Vladimir Chertkov, who wants Tolstoy to sign over copyright to his works to the Russian people, and Sofya, who is appalled at the idea of her family’s prospective disinheritance and considers Chertkov a sycophantic creep.
As the end game of Tolstoy’s life plays out, the priggish Bulgakov falls in love and learns that he is not, after all, such an enthusiastic adherent of the celibacy preached (but not practised) by Tolstoy. Meanwhile, Mirren’s Sofya rails and flounces and throws histrionic fits. As played by a very game Mirren, this is all enormously entertaining. But who knew Countess Tolstoy was such a drama queen?
On general release from 19th February.