Although it feigns literary prestige, Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station, a chronicle of Leo Tolstoy’s last days, is little more than a gilded trifle, though it offers its share of light enjoyments. Adapting Jay Parini’s novel, Hoffman (Soapdish) zeroes in on the battle between Tolstoy’s wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren) and his chief disciple, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). In his latter years, Tolstoy turned away from writing the novels that remain the foundation of Russian literature and toward promoting a utopian philosophy incorporating elements of Christianity and anarchism. But for Hoffman, the substance of Tolstoy’s beliefs is less important than the disposition of his works, which means the movie preoccupies itself with material wealth at the period in Tolstoy’s life when he had overtly rejected it.
In the middle of the conflict between spouse and acolyte is Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), an enthusiastic but naïve Tolstoyan whom Chertkov assigns to serve as the author’s assistant. Although Tolstoy preaches celibacy, he confesses to his young aide that he’s hardly a devout follower of his own beliefs. With his long, frizzy beard and leonine grin, Christopher Plummer’s Tolstoy seems, even in old age, to be far too sensual a creature to ever renounce his bodily urges. But Plummer’s performance, terrifically enjoyable though it is, gives no hint of the passionate embrace of the peasant class that runs through Tolstoy’s books, and that spurred him to give up writing all altogether.
The movie’s failure—perhaps even inability—to take the Tolstoyans’ beliefs seriously unbalances its central conflict. If the ideals to which he devotes himself are only so much talk, then Chertkov comes off as self-deluding at best and a fraud at worst, an oily manipulator whose attempts to convince Tolstoy to assign his copyrights to the Russian people are impossible to take at face value. Although the muzhiks are much-discussed, they remain on the edges of the frame, mute witnesses to the fate of a great man. For her part, Mirren throws herself into her role with the force of Anna Karenina meeting an oncoming train, sucking the last drop from each hysterical fit and fainting spell. If only Hoffman showed as much zeal in pursuing his subject.