The Last Station is about the last phase in the long life of the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, when writing novels has faded in importance for him, and what matters most is the utopian movement that had his name — Tolstoyan. Count Tolstoy has come to detest privilege, hence his support of his movement with its focus on social justice. The movie gives us views of his endlessly vast lands and of his serfs engaged in back breaking labor, reminding us that this is a reasonable development in the the thinking of an intelligent and compassionate author. In line with his ideals, he’s about to sign a will that will leave all future royalties on his books to the Russian people.
Altering the will, however, frightens and enrages his wife, Sonya, who sees it as a betrayal. She and Tolstoy have enjoyed a long and joyous marriage, she’s aided him in writing his novels both through insightful discussion and as a Secretary — “I copied War and Peace six times” — and has borne him 13 children (of which 8 survived); she feels she’s earned his loyalty and is due those royalties by tradition, for herself and her children. We can see her point, too.
Sonya’s on a collision course not only with Tolstoy but with Chertkov, Tolstoy’s kindred spirit and Tolstoyan administrator, who’s as determined to obtain those royalties for the larger, idealistic good as she is to keep them in the family. He sends a young believer, Valentin, to the Tolstoy chateau to be the author’s Secretary and to spy on Sonya. Valentin sees all, as the creators of this film want the viewer to see all; he’s torn between his idealist belief in the movement and his new understanding of love and loyalty, gained through close contact with Sonya and Tolstoy and his own budding romance. Yet, at a critical moment he has to choose: he sides with Tolstoy and Chertkov. Sonya is the loser. But when love and ideals collide there is no winner.
Eventually, and following history, Tolstoy leaves his chateau in the middle of winter, partly fleeing the frantic and histrionic Sonya and partly drawn toward some unclear ascetic vision. But not before Tolstoy and Sonya engage in one of the most astonishing and totally unexpected love scenes in all film.
This is a wonderful movie about real people — not just historically real, though the film is true to the circumstances at the end of Tolstoy’s life, but vivid, richly developed characters. Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy and Helen Mirren as Sonya are superb as the loving and warring pair. Paul Giamatti is both humorous and tenacious as the single-minded Chertkov. Kerry Condon with her wry and knowing smile is entrancing as Valentin’s lover. James McAvoy as Valentin manages the job among these great performances. All the characters have excellent reasons to want what they want and feel the way they do. How do all these valid and conflicting wants become reconciled? In the only way possible.