The Last Station (15)

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The Last Station is like Chekhov dumbed down for a tea-time serial.

It recounts the final days of Leo Tolstoy and the bitter dispute between rival camps over his legacy. Now in his eighties, the great novelist (played by Christopher Plummer) reluctantly finds himself elevated to the status of a guru, with a beard to match, and proto-paparazzi lurk outside his house awaiting a glimpse. On one side of the struggle is fanatical disciple Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who wants control of Tolstoy's will to help propagate a quasi-religion mixing pacifism with celibacy. On the other side is his wife, the Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren), who loathes the sanctimonious Chertkov and insists that she and her family are entitled to her husband's estate: after bearing him 13 children and rewriting War and Peace for him six times, she has a case.

Caught in the middle is Tolstoy's eager new secretary Valentin (James McAvoy), employed as a spy by Chertkov but diverted from his mission by the forthright charms of fellow Tolstoyan Masha (Kerry Condon). Through her, Valentin learns that love (not literature, not religion) is the cornerstone of life – a philosophy Tolstoy himself has striven to uphold and now, in his twilight days, finds more of a challenge than ever. Well, so would you if you were married to the Countess. Some have proclaimed this needy, brittle woman a great role for Mirren, but watching her throw tantrums and fling the crockery about isn't an unmitigated pleasure. While her self-pity is perhaps meant to be comic, it's also exhausting and one-note. However much right was on her side, Mirren demeans rather than ennobles her through suffering, and the scene in which she throws herself into the lake had me thinking – all right, hoping – she might never emerge.

After Mirren's histrionics the rest of the acting comes as a relief: Plummer, bearish and genial, twinkles nicely through his voluminous beard, and McAvoy conveys a young man's nervousness in the company of his hero with becoming modesty. Best of all is Kerry Condon as the brisk, straight-talking Masha, who so perfectly understands the doubting Valentin that you wish the movie was more about them and less about everyone else. For in the end The Last Station, handsome as it is, has very little to say about Tolstoy, other than that he whored around as a young man, secured a cultlike following and died in an obscure railway depot amid a riot of celebrity-hunters. Perhaps it was this that prompted the film's producer to call Tolstoy "the first celebrity", and "the Brangelina of his day". The film is pitched rather higher than that, thank God, but I wish I'd not come across that particular comparison. It reveals a bit too much of the modern mindset.