He was the celebrated author of “War & Peace,” but the last years of Leo Tolstoy’s life were all war and no peace.
The savage rivalry for his attention and his legacy between his redoubtable wife and his craftiest disciple has been turned into a showcase for tasty acting under the accomplished direction of Michael Hoffman.
The centerpiece of “The Last Station” is the spectacular back and forth between Christopher Plummer as the great man and Helen Mirren as Sofya, his wife of 48 years.
The notion for the film came from writer Jay Parini, who was so fascinated to discover that numerous people around Tolstoy in the fatal year of 1910 kept diaries with their versions of events that he wrote a novel telling the story from six points of view.
Hoffman’s screenplay simplifies this a bit but keeps the story’s fine sense of the complexities of human relationships, of the war in Tolstoy’s household between the welfare of family and the welfare of mankind.
After brief glimpses of Tolstoy and Sofya, “The Last Station” introduces young Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy, “Atonement”), who is applying for the job of the writer’s secretary.
A bright-eyed, naive follower of the worldwide Tolstoyan movement that espouses celibacy, communal property and passive resistance, Bulgakov is shocked to discover that he’s expected by his boss to spy on the Tolstoys as part of his duties.
That would be Vladimir Chertkov, the head of Tolstoy’s international movement (expertly played by Paul Giamatti, who brings energy and passion to the most unlikely and unlikable roles).
Chertkov knows he has no greater enemy than Sofya (hence the spying), who wants the royalties from her husband’s work to stay in the family, while he wants the copyright deeded to humanity.
From the opening shot of her air of regal command while descending a flight of stairs, Mirren (whose father was Russian) seizes the role of Sofya with both hands and does not let go.
She is as conservative as her husband is anarchic, and she is not shy about expressing her opinions. When he says “my privilege revolts me,” she snaps back: “But you are always the first one at the trough.”
If Sofya is tightly wound, Plummer plays Tolstoy as someone who has relaxed into his greatness. Looking like a frontman for ZZ Top crossed with a Talmudic sage, his Tolstoy has a largeness of spirit that transcends conventional boundaries.
These are people who simultaneously love each other and drive each other crazy, and the bond between them, running the gamut from bedroom intimacies to full-out brawls, is one we absolutely believe.
If “The Last Station” begins with a quote from “War and Peace’s” Prince Andrei that “everything I know I know only because I love,” it ends with our understanding of how complicated that simple sentence turns out to be.