A master class in acting is held at “The Last Station”

By Susan JAMES

“The Last Station,” written and directed by Michael Hoffman, is a pip of a movie about the power struggle between Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), his wife of 48 years Sofiya (Helen Mirren) and the unctuous Vladimir Chertkov, played with convincing cunning by Paul Giametti. Channeling the 1968 classic, “The Lion in Winter” and its word slashing power struggle between Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, Michael Hoffman chronicles the same sort of epic duel between Sofiya, determined to hold onto her dying husband’s literary estate, and the conspiring Chertkov, just as determined to see that it is left to the people of Russia. Above them both stands the old lion himself, Leo Tolstoy.

It is 1909, only a few years before World War I and the Russian Revolution will sweep away Tolstoy’s Russia. An internationally celebrated writer who has gathered a circle of slavishly devoted acolytes around him, Tolstoy holds court at his country estate of Yasnaya Polyana attended by wife Sofiya and unmarried daddy’s girl Sasha (Anne-Marie Duff). Plummer’s performance as Tolstoy is Shakespearian in its power. He is at once King Lear dividing his kingdom and Othello, riddled with doubts about his own beliefs and his wife’s agenda.

Mirren matches him as Sofiya, a woman who has borne her husband 13 children, copied out his massive “War and Peace” six times and acted as advisor and confident for nearly half a century.  The work, she feels, is as much hers as his. When Tolstoy, at the prompting of his personal Iago, Chertkov, decides to leave the copyright to all of his work to the nation rather than to her, Sofiya’s fury explodes. Marshalling the weapons of sex and sarcasm, she screams, she seduces, she hounds the old man in a desperate attempt to get him to change his mind.

This emotional battle is narrated from the viewpoint of Tolstoy’s new secretary Valentin. Played with tremendous subtlety by James McAvoy, Valentin is a conventional, inexperienced kid from Moscow who dreams of joining the cult of Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana.  Idealistic and awkward, Valentin is thrown defenseless into the maelstrom that is the Tolstoys’ marriage. Sofiya senses at once that the new arrival can be turned into an ally and sets out to win him over. Chertkov applies the screws of idealism and patriotism to attach Valentin to his side and Tolstoy all but adopts the boy. Sexually seduced by Masha (Kelly Condon), a fellow resident at Tolstoy’s commune, Valentin’s loyalties sway from side to side like a Russian birch tree in a high wind. McAvoy makes Valentin’s journey from stumbling boyhood to agonized maturity an Oscar worthy performance.

There are no false notes in this film. Every part, no matter how small, is lovingly polished and carefully fitted together. “The Last Station” is an entertaining story that provides a master class in acting by an accomplished set of actors.

See you at the movies!