Christopher Plummer & Helen Mirren in the movie The Last Station

He was the celebrated author of "War and Peace," but the final years of Leo Tolstoy's life were all war and no peace.

The savage rivalry for his attention and legacy between his redoubtable wife and his craftiest disciple has now been turned into a showcase for tasty acting by performers who really know how to sink their teeth into roles.

Under the accomplished direction of Michael Hoffman, who also wrote the script, "The Last Station" is well-acted across the board, but the film's centerpiece is the spectacular back and forth between Christopher Plummer as the great man, a count as well as a writer, and Helen Mirren as Sofya, his wife of 48 years.

After brief glimpses of Tolstoy and Sofya, "The Last Station" introduces the film's audience surrogate, young Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), who is applying for the job of the great man's secretary. A bright-eyed and naive young zealot, a priggish follower of the worldwide Tolstoyan movement that espouses celibacy, communal property and passive resistance, Bulgakov is shocked to discover that the man hiring him expects him to spy on the Tolstoys.

That man is Vladimir Chertkov, a devoted acolyte of the writer and the head of his international movement. Expertly played by Paul Giamatti, Chertkov is a true believer as well as an oily and ambitious fussbudget. He 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 Chertkov wants the copyright deeded to humanity.

Before he gets to the Tolstoy estate and begins his duties, Bulgakov makes a stop at a dreary Tolstoyan commune, where he makes the acquaintance of Masha (Kerry Condon), a frank, unabashed young woman who sees a spark of something in him that he doesn't even see himself.

Though the working out of this relationship is fine as far as it goes, and even includes a spicy bedroom scene, the real romantic interest in this film is the complex and compelling love story between Tolstoy and the woman who bore him 13 children, the woman who copied out "War and Peace" in longhand six times, the Countess Sofya.

Mirren fearlessly seizes this role 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 the count says, "My privilege revolts me," she snaps back, "But you are always the first one at the trough."

If Sofya is tightly wound, Plummer shrewdly plays Tolstoy as someone who has relaxed into his greatness.

Plummer's work is not as outwardly showy as Mirren's, but it is every bit its equal, and the great thing about "The Last Station" is the way these larger-than-life performances complement one another. 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.


MPAA rating: R (for a scene of sexuality and nudity).

Running time: 1:52.

Cast: Christopher Plummer (Leo Tolstoy); Helen Mirren (Sofya); James McAvoy (Valentin Bulgakov); Paul Giamatti (Vladimir Chertkov); Kerry Condon (Masha).

Credits: Written and directed by Michael Hoffman. Produced by Chris Curling, Jens Meurer, Bonnie Arnold. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

The Last Station Movie Review - Christopher Plummer & Helen Mirren