Tuesday, 30 March 2010


Becker Film Group
Now Showing

In my Oscars 09 Report previewing possible Supporting Actor contenders, I pondered how Christopher Plummer, playing the role of Leo Tolstoy, could be a supporting character in his own biopic. The answer: Helen Mirren. As Tolstoy's wife, Countess Sofya, Mirren gives a towering, scene stealing performance, one that earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination this year, and deservedly so. It understandably renders Plummer (also an Oscar nominee, the first time in a long career) a mere supporting player.

But The Last Station, directed by Michael Hoffman and adapted from the novel by Jay Parini, isn't so much a biopic about the great Russian author but a look at events in 1910, towards the end of his life, when interested parties were arguing over how best to carry on his legacy.

Sofya, Tolstoy's wife of 48 years, very much believes that her husband's literary estate should fall to her and their children; Tolstoy himself wishes to bequeath it to the Russian people. This view is shared by ardent Tolstoy disciple, Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who uses the young and impressionable Valentin (James McAvoy), assigned to the author as secretary, as a spy in the house of Tolstoy. Chertkov wants the Tolstoyan movement to succeed long after the great man's death.

Valentin is in awe of his employer, although admittedly, a better Tolstoyan than the man himself. He's adopted both the tenets of vegetarianism and celibacy, the latter of which is sorely tested by Masha (Kerry Condon), a fellow follower and resident of the commune nearby to the Tolstoy residence. It's not long before Valentin begins to question his own beliefs, including the portrayal of Sofya, mostly by Chertkov, as an enemy of the movement.

Hoffman's film is played out in a theatrical manner with Mirren front and centre. But Plummer is equal to the task, his Tolstoy the perfect foil for Sofya's mood swings. “You don't need a husband, you need a Greek chorus!” he bellows at her. But there's love there, too. The scene with Sofya coaxing Leo to bed (with clucking noises, no less) reveals a romantic history spanning half a century.

And in spite of her histrionics (whatever the Russian equivalent of 'drama queen' is, Sofya is its embodiment), you can't help but feel the Countess is being hard done by. I would think that anyone, but especially her husband, would be somewhat more forgiving of a wife who not only bore you 13 children (this was long before TV and the internet, people), but also transcribed, by hand, your literary masterpiece - that doorstop of a book, War and Peace - six times.

For those accomplishments, Sofya deserves compensation. For making the Countess a melodramatic whirlwind of passions and yet a believable woman, Mirren deserves our praise.

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