I feel a little bad for Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station. It’s kind of getting fluffed off as a mere period romance. The usual fare of solid performances by venerable actors and some young up-and-comers, blended with a pleasant but unremarkable story. Then again, that’s pretty much what it is. It’s a wonderful movie, absolutely charming and darling, if a tad bit overlong. Dual love stories — one of aged romance and one of freshly burgeoning passions — intertwine magnificently. Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer are practically magical, with an elder relationship that makes It’s Complicated look like It’s Complicated. It’s got a wonderful spritely humor that’s thoroughly refreshing through the first hour, winnowing into melancholy in the second. It’s everything you would want in a period romance — resplendent with lovely historical accents. And as much as I want to pepper this review with sparkling multi-syllabic praise, the movie couldn’t help but feel like the last-runner up at a Miss Universe pageant looking forward to a career of opening briefcases for Howie Mandel’s “You Want BOX?!” It’s a great movie, but it has nowhere near the marketing muscle to get beyond a smattering of secondary praise and award nominations. Any other year, this would have been a monster of a movie.
In his winter years, Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) had practically created a spiritualist movement devoted to celibacy and passive resistance, with heavy focus on renouncement of the orthodox church. He’s garnered a gathering of fanatically devoted followers who founded a commune devoted to Tolstoyism. The movement wanted Tolstoy to will his copyrights — worth over a million rubles to some — to the public domain so his word could be spread and the movement would grow exponentially, the charge being led by Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). This infuriated Tolstoy’s wife, Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren), who was given to dramatic pining and preening. The Countess wanted the rights to stay in the family, while Tolstoy grew weary of being waited on hand and foot and the excess of being a landed noble.
Chertkov hired young Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), a devoted Tolstoyist, as Tolstoy’s secretary. Bulgakov was to live at the commune and serve Tolstoy in whatever capacity he could, while dictating notes on the goings-on at the home. Valentin is obsessed with the affectionate old Tolstoy, overwhelmed by a man whose teachings he adheres to as religious tract. And yet, Tolstoy himself is not a very good Tolstoyist. While Valentin is still a virgin in his early twenties, Tolstoy reminisces about affairs he had when he was a lad. Tolstoy preaches love above all, that love is the singular force that unifies all religions, the most powerful and changing force in the world. So it is unsurprising that once Valentin catches a glimpse of the free-spirited and independent Masha (Kerry Condon) chopping wood and taunting him, he immediately falls in love and they start a passionate affair. You know, like it was scripted or something.
While Condon and McAvoy are sweet and touching for their love arc, it’s a bit trite and staid. But it’s not their fault, not when they are next to Mirren and Plummer. By God, it’s like something out of Burton-Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or O’Toole-Hepburn from A Lion in Winter. It’s passionate, hateful, and loving. They rage at each other and embrace each other with the same ferocity. To keep the fires of adoration stoked for over 40 years, you need to occasionally fuel the fire with anger. Chris Rock spoke true: you don’t really truly love someone until you’ve seriously thought about killing them. The Countess is a paranoid firebrand, prone to feigning illnesses and raging bile-filled tirades. She just wants Tolstoy to love her, and to love her always, and above everything else. You can see Tolstoy get enraged, a man who preaches passive resistance, and yet, you can also see how devoted he is to a woman with sea-temperament.
The ending of the story gets bogged down in history, but still manages to rise on the powerful performances of Plummer and Mirren. Mirren is a lock for a nomination and would easily snuff the rest of the competition if only people actually saw the movie. Plummer’s very, very good, but he also has the unrelenting task of keeping up with Mirren’s dazzling portrayal. Again, in any other year, Mirren would have been the shoe-in, hands-down victory faster than you can wrap a satin ribbon round Keira Knightley’s bony ol’ waist, but it’s that kind of banner year. Plus, it’s not like Michael Hoffman is a hot new commodity. This is the dude who couldn’t kindle a candle off an already hot Kevin Kline with Soapdish and that dreadful Midsummer Nights’ Dream with Michelle Pfeiffer and Indiana Jones’ hospice caregiver.
In a year of solidly excellent films without a single runaway standout, something like The Last Station is going to get left in the shadows with The Messenger and Away We Go. Which is a shame, because these smaller films deserve just as much accolades without the bloated marketing surge of the bigger prestige films. In fact, most of you probably got this confused with The Station Agent. It’s OK, so did Dustin. It’s not the kind of film that will stay with you, despite being terrifically cast and wonderfully done. In fact, twice, I’ve been distracted by “Simpsons” reruns while writing this review. But, if you’re one of those folks who needs a yearly dose of period romance, well, you could do far worse.