Set exactly a century ago, The Last Station is a droll tragicomedy starring those battling Tolstoys, whose family is unhappy in its own way.
Christopher Plummer, self-effacing as the peasant-loving Lev, and Helen Mirren, self-aggrandizing as Countess Sofya Tolstoy, are playful, poignant . . . and magnificent. Both were cited with richly deserved Oscar nominations this week. If enough Academy viewers saw their work they surely would win their respective categories.
Michael Hoffman's adaptation of the Jay Parini novel is a most affecting look at the twilight of a marriage and how its parties adapt to the dawn of a new era.
It is also a nonpartisan glimpse of what so often is a Great Man's last marital battle: Who gets to play the role of his widow? In this case, is it Tolstoy's wife of 48 years, or his chief acolyte, Chertkov (played with Simon Legree mustache-tugging by Paul Giamatti)?
Hoffman frames the countess as a relic of the 19th century, wrapping herself in the mantle of aristocracy as she would in one of her elegant shawls. And he presents the count - a man of the people who shuns his title - as a coda to the theological debates of the 19th century and prelude to the social upheavals of the 20th.
On an estate not far from his ancestral home, Tolstoy adherents live and work on a commune espousing egalitarianism, vegetarianism, and chastity.
Their leader is Chertkov, who hires Valentin (James McAvoy), a bright-eyed Tolstoyan, ostensibly as the writer's secretary but really to spy on the countess.
As one of the dominant celebrities of the newsreel age, Tolstoy is surrounded by cameramen and reporters who chronicle his every move while the public man struggles to sort out his private life.
McAvoy, once again playing the naive youth who wises up by the last reel (see The Last King of Scotland), is the audience surrogate, unbiased witness to the Tolstoy family feud.
Intellectually, he agrees with Chertkov and Tolstoy that the copyright to the author's work should be left to the Russian people.
Emotionally, Valentin sympathizes with the countess, Tolstoy's helpmeet and collaborator, arguing for her proprietary rights.
Plummer's wiliness and Mirren's willfulness make for a most potent and involving face-off. Hoffman's movie is almost musical in its duets and trios.
When Valentin meets Masha, a pretty Tolstoyan, it is hard for him to maintain his vow of chastity. Their dulcet young love has its counterpart in the discordant tones of Lev and Sofya.
The film's conflict is represented by two trios: Lev, Sofya, and Chertkov debate whether the writer has greater responsibility for the welfare of his family or that of the people. At the same time Sofya and Chertkov vie with each other to influence Valentin. The effect is like that of a Mozart opera.
Unlike Hoffman's previous films Restoration and A Midsummer Night's Dream, which had the unfortunate effect of fetishizing their period landscapes and interiors, here Sebastian Edschmid's fresh-air cinematography lets the story and characters breathe. Still, the movie's rhythms feel more like theater than film.
My definition of a good movie is one that drives a wedge between what I think and what I feel. Plummer and Mirren's masterful, comic, and sad performances as spouses locked in a power struggle had me rooting for both sides.
The Last Station has so many reverberations and resonances because it is at once microcosmic and macrocosmic. It is about a marriage on the brink of dissolution and a nation on the brink of revolution - and, finally, about the impossibility and necessity of reconciling head with heart.