Mirren and Plummer Deliver in ‘The Last Station’

2 03 2010

It’s Oscar season, which means that I’m going to try to get to as many nominated films as physically and mentally possible before the March 7 event.

Aside from The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, our look at nominees continues with The Last Station starring Helen Mirren (nominated for Best Actress) and Christopher Plummer (nominated for Best Supporting Actor).

Director: Michael Hoffman

Starring: Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, James McAvoy and Paul Giamatti,

Release Date: Jan. 15, 2010

Leo Tolstoy (Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy) is arguably one of the greatest writers of all time. War & Peace and Anna Karenina have stood the test of time and proven to be a a vivid representation of Russian life in the 19th century, and his non-fiction works on pacifism are said to have influenced countless historical figures.

He was also the figurehead of a pacifist movement espousing communal property and celibacy, headed by Vladimir Cherktov, and an avid diarist who encouraged everyone around him to write down their life and what they encounter.

This diary movement is one of the most prevalent recurring theme throughout Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station – and one that makes it impossible not to ask why it took 100  years for someone to make a movie of Tolstoy’s last days given the astounding amount of information that must have been written about the time.

But maybe the stars had never aligned in quite so amazing a way in the past 100 years to give us the beauty that Hoffman produced.

Christopher Plummer, he of Captain Von Trapp and (most recently) Dr. Parnassus fame, disappears completely into the role of Tolstoy. Not only does he look spot on like the literary master, but he plays him just as video and writings of Tolstoy say he acted. He hits all the right notes of glee, concern, anger, confusion and love. It’s hard to imagine that this year’s Academy Awards will see him as a nominee for the very first time.

Mirren, on the other hand, has been nominated four times (including her nomination for The Last Station) and won Best Actress in 2002 for her role in The Queen. Still, she deserves every award she’s been up for this season as she’s glorious in her role as Tolstoy’s wife, Sofya. Her performance as a wife living in constant fear that her husband will be corrupted by one of his close friends (Giamatti’s Vladmir Chertkov) into signing the rights to his works over to the Russian people, that her family will reject her due to her rejection of many of the Tolstoyan values, and that her husband would die before she had a chance to see him a final time is both heartbreaking and mesmerizing.

Sofya truly loved Tolstoy, even as she disagreed with his ideals and failed to understand his desire to dispose of all of his private property. And it is apparently that he loved her as well, though towards the end of his life her negativity regarding his need to sign away the family’s rights to his books to keep in line with his thoughts on how to better the world forced him to leave the once-loving home the two shared.

One of the most truly beautiful scenes in the entire film is a love scene between Sofya and Leo. After fighting for some time Sofya just wants the man she married back in her life and the way she coaxes him to the forefront of Leo’s mind – putting aside differences and worries – is pure and tender. The two seem to be at peace, and yet once the moment ends we are all thrown into the jarring reality that things and people change over time and no one is the same person they were years ago.

Along with the love story of Leo and Sofya, the audience is treated to a brief romance between two of Tolstoy’s followers, Valentin Bulgakov (McAvoy) and Masha (Kerry Condon). Masha has been at the Tolstoyan compound for some time when Valentin arrives and she immediately catches his eye even as he tries his best to remain the celibate virgin he thinks Tolstoy would appreciate.

Valentin is given the honorable task of being Tolstoy’s personal secretary, where he learns the true story of his famed hero. Sure, Tolstoy the public figure espouses celibacy and chastity, but Tolstoy the real person had no problems with intimacy in his youth. This central dichotomy not only confuses Valentin, it leads him to strike up a friendship with Sofya as she tells him about Tolstoy the man while asking him to keep an eye on the family’s assets.

She also helps him to realize the love that she and Leo once held for each other and that he must strive for that type of love in his own interactions. Here, Masha enters as the temptress who stripped him of his virginity before he realized just what was happening and ultimately the great love Valentin hopes will mirror that of Sofya and Leo at their best.

McAvoy holds his own amongst two great and classic actors. While not a new-comer in the strictest sense, he has the least acting experience of the four main characters and yet his inexperience is unnoticeable. He plays Valentin with a distinct innocence that slowly shatters as he delves deeper into the lives of the Tolstoy’s and surfaces a new, better man for the experience by the end of the film. One can only hope that just as his character mirrors the growth and development of Plummer and Mirren’s characters so to will his career. He has the capabilities to thrive in the profession for many years to come.

Final verdict: The Last Station is comprised of some Oscar-worthy appearances by veteran actors and new-comers alike. Not only is the story compelling, but the emotion with which the actors lay their parts is palpable. And the heart of any good film is truly the emotions present. It would be a sin for Mirren not to win this year’s Best Actress award, just as it is a sin that The Last Station was not nominated for Best Picture even after they expanded the pool to 10 films. The film may not seem to be everyone’s cup of tea as they may not care for literary figures on their death beds, but this movie is so much more than the death of Leo Tolstoy. It is an altruistic approach to the most basic of every human emotions – love.

Rating: Really Good