Merely hinting at his literary achievements, 'The Last Station' zeroes-in on the spiritual utopia Leo Tolstoy set about building in the twilight of his life. Against this backdrop is the struggle between Tolstoy (Plummer), his wife Sofya (Mirren) and his most devoted acolyte Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti) over the rights to the writer's oeuvre. Sofya wants the family to retain ownership of the works while Chertkov and the other Tolstoyan followers wish that they be left to the Russian people. Thrown into the mix is Tolstoy's secretary Valentin Bulgakov (McAvoy), initially hired to spy on the writer and his wife, but who develops sympathy for Sofya.
Hoffman's pretty movie nails its colours to the mast from the off, and the ease with which it seems to dismiss the Tolstoyans as two-dimensional bad guys is a serious flaw. Within the first two minutes a title quotation from Tolstoy reminds us of the importance of love, before Giamatti twists his moustache in a way that could only be seen as villainous caricature. This unbalances the central conflict and the film could really have benefited from equal consideration of both sides' points-of-view.
In the movie's favour, though, the love story that does remain is illuminated by two excellent central performances. The hype of award nominations is justified: Mirren and Plummer dovetail brilliantly. She's all vitriol and lustfulness; he dominates the screen with sheer size.
Plummer is bear-like in all he does. His laugh, his tears, his anger and even his snoring as Tolstoy are larger than life without ever slipping into over-acting. There are some who may find Sofya's melodrama tiresome, but in amongst the histrionics Mirren manages to give her a warm, sympathetic quality. Sofya is a woman drifting into obsolescence after sharing a lifetime with her husband and Mirren satisfyingly captures the character's resistance to the change in her life.
The scenes involving both are the film's undoubted high points - rarely has any on-screen couple so accurately depicted the contradictions of elderly marriage. By turns they drive each other crazy, depend on each other and show great affection, convincing in each exchange.
It's a shame, then, that the movie shifts away from them so often. Instead, the focus is all-too frequently on the burgeoning romance between Valentin and Masha (Condon), a girl he meets at Tolstoy's commune. Despite commendable efforts by McAvoy and Tipperary-born 'Rome' star Kerry Condon, this seems slightly insubstantial and irrelevant after what we've been treated to earlier.
As the film reaches its conclusion, the impression left is one of wasted opportunity. The Tolstoy marriage alone could have made for a very powerful study of enduring love and betrayal, but it's somewhat lost in the framing of this plot. 'The Last Station' definitely has strengths, but simply doesn't play up to them often enough.