A naughty old man crowing like a rooster before sexing up his wife isn't how I imagined Russian author Leo Tolstoy before seeing The Last Station. • Thanks to the twinkle in Christopher Plummer's eyes during that foolish foreplay — with Helen Mirren returning the glow and crow — it's now the first thing I'll remember, if the author of War and Peace ever comes up in conversation. • The Last Station deals with the history book aspects of Tolstoy's final days, while filling the margins with delicious gossip about the socialist icon and his feisty wife, Sofya, right down to the proto-paparazzi loitering outside their door. Michael Hoffman's movie looks and sounds like Masterpiece Theatre, but its heart lies squarely in TMZ territory, if Harvey Levin toted a hand-cranked movie camera.
Tolstoy is a dying legend when The Last Station begins, revered as a saint by the masses for advocating a ban on private property and passive resistance against the Czar. A nation of peasants embrace his ideas, with some, like his trusted friend Chertkov (sneaky Paul Giamatti) gleaning his greatness.
There's a disconnection in the way Tolstoy lives and the rules of shared wealth and celibacy on the farming commune he owns, tended by devoted Tolstoyans. He wonders if this is the right time to practice what he preaches, to give away everything including copyrights to his books, as Chertkov urges.
Sofya is sternly opposed to the idea, and few actors do stern as well as Mirren. Chertkov is a schemer under house arrest miles away and should remain there. Sycophants comparing her husband to Jesus are wearing on Sofya's nerves. Tolstoy starting to believe them is the final straw. He will not give away her future, or that of their eight surviving children (so much for that celibacy thing). This is a prickly marriage played to perfection.
The Last Station is also a grand, tragic love story, announced at the outset by the War and Peace quotation: "Everything I know, I know because I love." The best scenes in the movie begin with eloquent daggers thrown — at a garden party with friends, in the bedroom — and end with Tolstoy and Sofya's bone-deep affection, a bit of opera and, yes, precoital crowing melting away the rancor.
Jay Parini's novel and now Hoffman's movie, too often steer away from the household fireworks to a fictional subplot about the author's new, star struck personal assistant Valentin (James McAvoy) who's a reluctant spy for both Sofya and Chertkov. Valentin falls for a commune worker (Kerry Condon), with the usual complications to follow.
The extra attention to McAvoy's character allowed Plummer, 80, to earn his first Academy Award nomination, in the supporting actor category. That designation can be argued since this is clearly Plummer's movie, in glorious tandem with fellow lead actress nominee Mirren.
Through their performances we see the final arc of a long, tumultuous romance; all the affection, spite, triumph and tragedy. Everything I know now about Tolstoy, I know because of love.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.