The plot of 'The Last Station' is relatively simple. Chertkov hires a young pacifist, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) to work as Tolstoy's secretary but in reality act as his spy. Valentin is instructed to write down everything the master says and relay all garnered information back to Chertkov. The Tolstoyans have high and mighty ideals about spreading Tolstoy's message but the leadership are a bunch of prigs, insisting that all members of the commune lead ascetic lives as celibates. At first Valentin wears his virginity as a badge of honor but soon falls for the free spirited Masha (Kerry Condon), who seduces him. Masha soon grows disillusioned with the 'movement' as she cannot abide by their rigid rules.
Tolstoy appears to be much more open-minded than his followers and laughs at Valentin when he admits that he's a virgin. Nonetheless, it's never really explained in much detail why Tolstoy is attracted to his 'Tolstoyans'. There's some talk about Tolstoy being impressed by Chertkov's ability to get his message out to as many people as possible. By the same token, Tolstoy cannot be unaware that his followers deep down are a bunch of reactionaries.
It's his long-suffering wife, Sofya, who sees through Chertkov and his minions and clashes with her husband about her suspicions that he might be changing his will in favor of his obsessed followers. Her fears are realized when Tolstoy agrees to sign away all his copyrights so that the Russian people can read his books for free. This outrages Sofya, since she was counting on having the family receive the inheritance.
Three quarters of 'The Last Station' is played primarily as a farce. Helen Mirren intentionally serves up an over-the-top performance as Sofya, the overemotional countess, who would probably be diagnosed today as bi-polar. While Sofya correctly sees through Chertkov's machinations, her emotional outbursts end up alienating her husband, who finally has had enough and decides to leave his estate.
The last quarter of the film (the more serious part) chronicles Tolstoy's last days as he ends up the subject of intense media scrutiny. Buoyed by his followers along with his devoted daughter, Tolstoy is given lodging by a kindly stationmaster after disembarking from a train in southern Russia. Meanwhile, Sofya tries to commit suicide by jumping in a pond back at the Tolstoy estate. The suicide attempt fails and she soon learns of Tolstoy's aborted trip and that he's now dying. She races to see her stricken husband but Chertkov and her daughter prevent her from seeing him on his death bed. Finally, as he draws his last breaths, the daughter allows her mother to pay her last respects.
'The Last Station' is most successful in the scenes where Helen Mirren is battling the Tolstoyans. Two scenes come to mind right away: where Sofya falls through the window and rages against Chertkov as they plot to divert the family inheritance; and when Sofya fires a gun multiple times at Chertkov's picture. There's also quite a bit of nice interplay between Plummer and Mirren, as the Tolstoy's love/hate relationship is dissected in high relief.
Paul Giamatti is one of the best American character actors out there today and does a fine job of playing up the comical aspects of the petty tyrant, Chertkov. But Chertkov remains unexplaineddoes he have any redeeming characteristics or is he a pure villain? (when Giamatti keeps twirling his moustache, we're inclined to believe that he is indeed the principal villain of the piece). James McAvoy doesn't have much to work with in the part of Valentin who's depicted as a Nervous Nellie who eventually (and rather predictably) joins up with Masha and leaves the Tolstoyan cult for good. One thing is for sure: Christopher Plummer can do no wrong as Tolstoy (when is Plummer ever bad in a part?)
'The Last Station' is well written but by no means should it be considered 'high-brow'. The idea that the well-intentioned ideas of a creative man such as Tolstoy could be so easily corrupted by a group of cult-like, anarchistic followers, is never explored seriously. Instead, the film's scenarists are bemused by both Tolstoy's followers and family members and view their machinations more as farce than serious drama. Only in the last scene, where Sofya expresses her undying love for her husband who has just expired, does 'The Last Station' rise to the heights of deep emotion.
'The Last Station' will certainly keep your interest from beginning to end. And please pay attention to the closing credits, where the actual motion pictures of Tolstoy walking around on his country estate, are shown.