THE LAST STATION
(Dir. Michael Hoffman, 2009)
Considering his fine lengthy career, it's amazing that the distinguished actor Christopher Plummer has never before been nominated for an Oscar. Well, here as Leo Tolstoy in this mostly strong historical drama about the famed Russian author's final days, Plummer simply could not be ignored by the Academy.
He and his much celebrated co-star, Helen Mirren as Tolstoy's acidic wife Sofya, both scored nominations which I believe many audiences will find are well deserved. The imprint made by their volatile chemistry will last long after Awards season hype was died down.
Opening titles tell us that Tolstoy is the most acclaimed writer in history and other things we could easily Google, and the ending features ancient footage of the real man - an inescapable cliché of seemingly every biopic - but in between is an emotionally complex examination of a stubborn man's ideals.
These are no ordinary ideals you understand - this is a man who is thought by multitudes to be a genius or even a holy figure. “You think he’s Christ!” Mirren exclaims in exasperation at one of many points. “I don’t think he’s Christ,’’ responds Tolstoy’s doctor (John Sessions). “Christ is Christ. I do believe he’s a prophet, though.’’
Mirren believes that a society of sycophants is forming around her dying husband with the moustache twirling Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) heading the pack. Wandering innocently into the middle of Mirren and Giamatti’s fight for Tolstoy’s fortunes (she believes the family should get the copyrights, he thinks the property should go to the masses) is a wide eyed James McAvoy (maybe a bit too much like his role in THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND) hired to be the ailing author’s private secretary.
McAvoy relishes his position enough to let his celibacy slide when another Tolstoy disciple (Kerry Condon) slips into his chambers, but the real titillation comes from Plummer and Mirren playful bedroom banter.
In the company of others, Mirren is an angry defensive verbally abusive animal; alone with her venerated husband she is infested with an infectious silliness. She is truly a woman in love – in all its irrational selfish glory.
This all makes the last third of the film all the more painful. Plummer and his loving entourage travel by train across country ostensibly so the great man can get some final peace away from his wife. His final destination - that of the title – is soon surrounded by concerned citizens and guarded by his followers. Mirren tries in vain to get through them but as the saying goes, that train has long left the station.
Like last year’s brilliant BRIGHT STAR, which dealt with a dying John Keats, THE LAST STATION is concerned with the limits of love and literature. It has a sort of reserved passion boiling under its Masterpiece Theater/Merchant Ivory-ish surface that sizzles when Plummer and Mirren share the screen. The movie suffers sorely when they are absent as Giamatti has a one note villain role and McAvoy’s romantic subplot is tiresomely typical.
That those and other shortcomings can be overlooked is testament to the purity of Mirren and Plummer’s performances. In Plummer’s case it’s nice that the Academy finally took notice.