When it comes to historical fiction, its imperative that historical subjects be portrayed in a realistic way that is true to the figure, and fictional characters as believable to the time period. The Last Station, which is based on a novel by Jay Parini, does just this but leaves out one crucial element: energy.
Don't let the smiles fool you.
The Last Station focuses on a young man named Valentin (James McAvoy), who served as Leo Tolstoy's assistant during the final years of his life. Valentin is a noble Tolstoyian, dedicating his life to "the movement" and desiring nothing more than Tolstoy's favor. Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) turns out to be a handful; even more so his wife, Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren), who is trying to convince her husband not to hand over the rights of his works to the Russian people via Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), the sly leader of "the movement."
Adapted and directed by newcomer Michael Hoffman, the film is wildly uneven. When the action focuses on Valentin and his life inside the Tolstoyian community, the film lags. This is not really McAvoy's or Kerry Condon's, who plays his illicit lover, fault; the characters and action are merely uninteresting. It's hard to decipher whether Valentin's tics are there to provide comic relief or to make him seem more "human;" either way, they're really just annoying. And McAvoy and Condon barely have any chemistry, which is a major hindrance in the believability of their coupling.
It's when the film focuses on the Tolstoys that things really get interesting. This can be attributed to the phenomenal performances by veteran actors Plummer and Mirren, who certainly have the best on-screen chemistry I've seen this year. Plummer portrays Tolstoy as a complex old man, a prophet who doesn't believe his own words. He sees his life in front of him but chooses to give the reins to those around him rather than control it himself. There's a real charm in Plummer's eyes, and his Tolstoy is one of his finest performances. Mirren injects Sofya with just the right amount of melodrama; her performance teeters on camp but gracefully avoids crossing that line. She's a woman who refuses to be ignored, and wants her husband to love her again. Mirren is reliably fantastic, and succeeds in making sure that once the lights come back on, we all remember Sofya.
The Last Station makes a noble attempt to tell the story of the Tolstoys through both the family themselves and through an outside observer, but fails to be consistently compelling. It's the veteran actors who save it from becoming a total bore.