"Happy families are all alike," wrote Leo Tolstoy, but "every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Including his.
Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.
"Happy families are all alike," wrote Leo Tolstoy, but "every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
“The Last Station,” which takes us inside Tolstoy's domicile, is a historical drama set in 1910 about the final days in the life of celebrated, world-famous Russian author Tolstoy, and the knock-down-drag-out domestic war that raged between him and his wife, Sofya, his muse and wife of 48 years.
His extreme wealth clashing with his vow of poverty, the literary lion is thinking of leaving his considerable fortune -- the extensive royalties from War and Peace and Anna Karenina as well as substantial property -- to humanity rather than to his wife and their 13 children. For many reasons, this betrayal of the family enrages her.
Christopher Plummer plays Tolstoy, his health failing, opposite Helen Mirren as Sofya. The count and countess are at odds over what's to happen with his legacy, and Tolstoy finds himself ambivalent about some of his spouted philosophy, taken so very seriously by his followers, including vegetarianism and celibacy.
Paul Giamatti plays Tolstoy's publisher and advisor, and the manipulative head of the international Tolstoy movement that frowns upon private property and preaches passive resistance. He urges Leo to write a new will and leave everything to the Russian people.
To that end, he hires a young member of the movement who worships Tolstoy, played by James McAvoy, and sends him to work as Tolstoy's assistant. He's to live in the utopian community on the Tolstoy compound, spy on him, and report on his activities.
As for the cherished vow of celibacy he has pledged to uphold, it's severely tested when he meets a fetching cult member who's somewhat less committed to that particular needs-denying principle.
Director Michael Hoffman, who also adapted the novel by Jay Parini, lets his strong cast do the heavy lifting -- and they do him proud. Giamatti and McAvoy are solid in rather narrow roles, Plummer is fine as the cerebral aristocratic icon, and Mirren is absolutely spectacular as the pivotal character. It's highly entertaining to watch her (Oscar-nominated for Best Actress) and Plummer (Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor) go at each other as larger-than-life, loving-but-dueling spouses.
Mirren's ferociousness and righteous indignation as a religious woman, a devoted wife, and a protective mother in panic mode -- throughout which she is also able to be acidly funny -- takes your breath away. If you don't already know how gifted an actress she is, you will now.
“The Last Station” is an enjoyable period piece and acting clinic in which Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer show us a lively piece of the war between Those Bickering Tolstoys.
Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.