By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 5, 2009 at 9:20AM
The Last Station is a straight-on period biopic starring Christopher Plummer as the aged Leo Tolstoy, the famed Russian author of War and Peace, constantly at war with his mercurial wife Sophya (Helen Mirren). Paul Giamatti, a scheming Tolstoy disciple, wants to share the author's copyrights with the masses, while Sophya fights for her husband's love and her children's inheritance. Caught in the middle is Tolstoy's loyal, vegetarian, celibate secretary (James McAvoy). Plummer and Mirren are equally matched blazing adversaries and McAvoy is wonderfully reactive as the virginal acolyte who not only loses his innocence, but starts to learn about love and marriage.
This German-financed $17-million movie is gorgeous--shot in the former East Germany--and utterly accessible and entertaining. The audience ate it up. This is one of those movies that's not as much a serious critic's picture as an adult crowd-pleaser. It seems well-matched to The Weinstein Co., Miramax or Goldwyn. IFC and SPC have the advantage: they're in Telluride.
The question of future awards potential is strictly a matter of which distrib picks it up and when they release it. While IFC is talking with seller Robbie Little, the movie will next be shown at AFI Fest.
At the screening, I sat next to a line of Tolstoy descendents, including great great grandson Vladimir Tolstoy, who runs Yasnaya Poliana, the family estate south of Moscow, and his 24-year-old daughter Anastasia, a lovely literature grad student specializing in Nabokov at Oxford. Vladimir flew to Colorado through New York and Denver, and was returning the next day. Even though the movie was directed by an American, shot in Germany and stars a cast of English-speaking Brits, Vladimir said that he was glad that the film would spread the love of Tolstoy to the world. Several Telluride residents who are Tolstoy descendants read about the film in the program, contacted Vladimir and came to dinner with their Russian relatives Friday night.
Typically, the movie had a long road to getting made. But throughout its history actors reacted to its juicy roles. Producer Bonnie Arnold originally picked up the rights to Jay Parini's 1990 novel about the last year in the life of Tolstoy after finally convincing elderly Anthony Quinn that he would never make the movie. For a long time Robbie Little, who raised money overseas, waited for Anthony Hopkins and Meryl Streep to add the movie to their schedules, but they never did.
Years later, a mutual friend brought Arnold together with Michael Hoffman (Soapdish, Restoration), who had long wanted to do the movie, but didn't know how. One night, he confessed at Friday night's Galaxy screening, as he was realizing that he didn't want to do yet another studio comedy, he suddenly remembered this movie and saw in a flash how to do it. It wasn't just about Tolstoy and his contentious family and followers, it was about "love and marriage. It's a struggle for all of us," he said.
The Parini book is a Rashomon-like distillation of six diary accounts of that year, from family members, Tolstoy followers and the auteur himself, who kept a public and a secret diary. The film changed course as the actors brought in more snippets of information, so that Leo and Sophya's marriage took front and center. She bore him 13 children and wrote out War and Peace six times by hand. He had a nervous breakdown after finishing Anna Karenina. Three camera crews followed them on the estate, each representing a different story. Finally Tolstoy runs away from home at 82 years old. "The Last Station is subverting the notion of Tolstoy as a prophet and genius," Hoffman said at Saturday's panel on reality in movies. "He was a victim of multiple narratives. He couldn't manage his own domestic life."
The producers plan to screen the film for the 250 or so Tolstoy extended family who convene at the estate for reunions every year or so.