Like Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren is a favorite choice come awards season. At a time when older actresses see fewer starring roles come their way, Streep and Mirren turn up again and again in high-profile vehicles that display their talents to great advantage. Like Streep, Mirren often portrays cultural icons, the prime example being Queen Elizabeth II in 2006′s The Queen, which won for her an Academy Award. This year she has been nominated (against Streep) for her performance as another historical figure, Sofya Tolstoya, wife of the Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy. The film, The Last Station, concerns the last year of Tolstoy’s life when he was following through on his promise to sign over the copyright for his work to the Russian people, against Sofya’s wishes.
The Last Station has had limited release and, as a result, a small box office take. Oscar nominations for Mirren and for Christopher Plummer, who plays Tolstoy, will no doubt increase interest in the movie. The supporting cast, Paul Giamatti and James McAvoy (above with Mirren), also deliver strong performances. Yet, this is no Avatar and will be unlikely to find a large audience. For those who wait breathlessly for the next Merchant and Ivory production (The City of Your Final Destination with Anthony Hopkins will be released soon), The Last Station can suffice for now. The film has all the ingredients of a classic period film, with great attention given to scenery, costumes, hairstyles, food, and conventions of the time.
While the film deals with Russian history, the theme—giving away one’s wealth—is suddenly a concept that is finding a following today. (A recent book by a Wall Street Journal reporter and his daughter covers their family’s decision to sell their home and give one-half of the proceeds to the Hunger Project in Africa). Long ago, like today, not everyone is so quick to embrace such a radical philanthropic decision. Tolstoy’s fiercest opponent is his wife, the Countess, who wants her husband to protect his estate for his children. There are grander movements at play here. In 1910 Russia, the Communist movement was picking up speed and Tolstoy’s gesture while personal is also political. His followers are intent—no, make that rabid—on making sure he doesn’t back down.
Sofya proves to be a formidable opponent. She has one card she is not afraid to play—-Tolstoy loves her. She loves him, too, passionately, but she does not see him as his followers see him, as a savior and spiritual prophet. Mirren’s displays her considerable skills in the range of emotions she finds in Sofya. She is playful when trying to entice her husband into bed, angry when he blasts her interference, and, finally, distraught when she discovers he has left her.
“Love conquers all,” is not something that applies to Tolstoy and Sofya. While the movie takes poetic license, showing Sofya seeing her husband one last time on his death bed, she was not afforded that privilege in real life. Theirs may have been a love story at one point, but in the end, politics and the people won out.