TELLURIDE, Colo. -- With awards season looking a little thin this year, a savvy distributor should snap up Michael Hoffman's "The Last Station," which had its world premiere screenings during the weekend at Telluride. Three superb performances by Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer and James McAvoy should have Oscar handicappers drooling. Although this story of the last days of Leo Tolstoy is specialized material, it packs an emotional wallop that costume pictures often lack. "Station" has the potential to be a substantial art house hit. It also is the high-water mark in Hoffman's 20-year career.
Adapted from Jay Parini's novel, Hoffman's screenplay begins in 1910, when Valentin Bulgakov (McAvoy), an earnest intellectual, is hired as Tolstoy's secretary. When he arrives at the estate of the revered author (Plummer), Valentin finds himself caught in the middle of a power struggle between Tolstoy's wife, Countess Sofya (Mirren), and Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), the weaselly leader of the utopian movement that Tolstoy founded. The innocent Valentin is startled by the tempestuous nature of the Tolstoys' 48-year marriage, and he finds his loyalties tested more than once as he tries to navigate the passions -- financial as well as emotional -- that swirl around an author as celebrated as Tolstoy. (By this point, the film makes clear, the aging author of "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina" was one of the first literary celebrities, with journalists and photographers camping out on his doorstep.)
The picture is far livelier than the standard literary biopic. Welcome bursts of rowdy humor and sensuality punctuate the intrigue. As Valentin begins a romance with a young woman living on Tolstoy's farm, the flush of first love is played as counterpoint to the harder realities of a long-term relationship. "Station" will be remembered as one of the most riveting cinematic portraits of what George Eliot called the "murder" of marriage. The actors bring all the pain and longing to the surface. Mirren can explode with anger at one moment and fall into desperate neediness the next. Because of her eloquent performance, even during Sofya's most operatic tirades, we always feel her abiding love for her husband.
Plummer has been shamefully overlooked by Oscar voters during his four-decade film career. This might finally be the time for the Academy to make amends. He looks remarkably like the familiar photographs of the aging author, and he has the stature to play genius convincingly. But Plummer also captures the great man's frailties with self-deprecating humor. There is one moment when Tolstoy kneels on the ground to bid farewell to his beloved home that is a brilliant example of how much a great actor can convey through sheer physicality.
Playing against these two giants, it's amazing that McAvoy holds his own. The opening scenes showing Valentin awestruck in the presence of his idol represent the height of high comedy. As he comes to recognize his hero's feet of clay, McAvoy's reactions deepen poignantly. This is the actor's best performance to date.
Kerry Condon as his love interest has just the right skeptical, earthy spirit. Anne-Marie Duff as Tolstoy's conflicted daughter also hits emotional high notes. Only Giamatti as the pompous antagonist seems a bit uncomfortable, but maybe that's because his role is the least nuanced in the script.
Technical credits are splendid in this German-Russian co-production. Sebastian Edschmid's handsome cinematography and Patrizia von Brandenstein's impeccable production design add immeasurably to the movie's impact. But more important than the fine craftsmanship is the unabashed emotional power that the film summons in its final scenes. Thanks to the fire of the acting as well as the shrewdness of the writing and direction, there is unlikely to be a dry eye in the house.
The clips may contain spoilers...watch at your own risk! ;-)
Edited to include one more clip!