Spies and Lies

The Last Station dramatizes Tolstoy's tumultuous final days

The Last Station *** Opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre

No quill pens are brandished in The Last Station, the overripe, if sumptuously entertaining, new biopic about Russian literary lion Leo Tolstoy. Yet the spirit of Hollywood's Golden Age casts its rosy shadow. Set in 1910, the movie depicts the domestic battle royale waged between Leo (a divinely plummy Christopher Plummer) and his wife Sofya (Helen Mirren, every bit as regal in bearing as she was playing Queen Elizabeth) in the final year of the Great Man's life. Tolstoy's decision to leave his formidable estate to the Russian people rather than to Sofya and their children creates an irreparable fissure between the otherwise devoted couple.

Adding fuel to the fire is Chertkov (Paul Giamatti, rocking a Snidley Whiplash moustache), Tolstoy's most ardent and unctuous disciple. Determined to drive a wedge between Leo and Sofya, Chertkov hires idealistic young Tolstoyan Valentin Bulgakov (the appealing James McAvoy) to serve as Leo's personal assistant and Chertkov's in-house spy. Dutifully scribbling down every overheard conversation between the warring Tolstoys for Chertkov's delectation, Bulgakov nearly crumbles from the stress of being a double agent. He soon becomes a confidante to both Sofya and Leo, and even finds time to romance their frisky daughter Masha (Kerry Condon, scrumptious). War and Peace seems as genteel as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm compared with this tempestuous ronde.

Written and directed by the consistently undervalued Michael Hoffman (Restoration, Soapdish), The Last Station spins a ripping good yarn in stylish fashion. Based on the novel by Jay Parini that took considerable liberties with the historical facts, Hoffman's film gilds the lily even further in the service of showing the audience a good time. Only a dyed-in-the wool Tolstoyan like Chertkov would object, though, when the end result is this indecently pleasurable. Station is for anyone who complains they don't make 'em like they used to.

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