One of the most difficult achievements for an actor is to realistically portray genius. Too often in the movies we are subjected to great writers or artists in the hammy throes of inspiration. Great artists are regular, plodding people, too. What’s more, their greatness is often missed in their own time.
It’s certainly not true that Count Leo Tolstoy was unrecognized in his day – he was revered as Russia’s greatest writer – but one of the terrific things about writer-director Michael Hoffman’s “The Last Station” is that, as Christopher Plummer plays him, the old master is, of all things, a recognizable human being. He’s not an icon, at least not to himself and his adoring, long-suffering wife, Sofya, played with ravenous theatricality by Helen Mirren. The film is about many things – including the rise of quasi-socialist communes devoted to passive resistance that sprang up around Tolstoy in his final days – but it’s finally, and most successfully, about the amorous battle between the count and countess. Married 48 years, these two haul around so much history together that they’re practically an epic novel all on their own. They’re waging a war that seems right out of a novel by, well, Tolstoy.
The ostensible conflict in “The Last Station,” based on a novel by Jay Parini, is between Sofya and Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), Tolstoy’s chief disciple, who believes that the master’s works rightfully belong to the Russian people. Over Sofya’s hot-eyed objections, he wants Tolstoy to sign over his writings into the public domain, and, to grease this agenda, he arranges for a young acolyte, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), to become Tolstoy’s assistant. Bulgakov is supposed to be acting as Chertkov’s spy, but most of the time he’s too gaga to provide much useful intelligence. The self-denial implicit in Tolstoy’s neo-Christian, neomystical agrarianism doesn’t jibe with the sensuous world he’s surrounded by – especially in the form of Masha (Kerry Condon), another acolyte with a rather loose sense of self-abnegation.
This Bulgakov-Chertkov narrative is entertaining but also somewhat callow. McAvoy is never entirely convincing – he seems too coltish and contemporaneous to be a true believer circa 1910 – and Giamatti lets his moustache do much of his acting for him. (He’s one of the few actors who is still worth watching even when he’s overdoing it – Nicolas Cage is another – but Hoffman could still have brought him down a notch.) Even if these scenes were better, they wouldn’t stand up to the Plummer-Mirren grand opera. Every time we are taken away from these two, a terrific movie plummets into OK-ness. (It’s how I felt watching “Julie & Julia” every time we switched to Julie.)
Plummer’s Tolstoy, with his big beard and big rheumy eyes, is still startlingly alive in his 80s. The funniest, and truest, joke in the movie is that Tolstoy, despite his philosophical revulsion for worldly things, is irreducibly grounded in earthy pleasures. He’s as imposing a physical presence as the stout trees that cleave the grounds of his estate.
In her own way, Sofya matches him pound for pound (and line for line). This is a woman who, after all, gave her husband 13 children and, perhaps even more impressive, copied out “War and Peace” for him six times. Whether she is staging fainting spells or throwing herself into ponds, Sofya is always intensely aware of the effect she is having on Tolstoy. When he makes his break with her and she follows him, against Chertkov’s admonitions, to his death bed, we can see in their eyes how much love/hate has coursed between them. “The Last Station” isn’t all that it should be, but whenever these two actors are onscreen, it’s like a great night at the theater. Grade: A- (Rated R for a scene of sexuality/nudity.)