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Originally published Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 3:00 PM

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Movie review

'The Last Station' shows off Plummer, Mirren as the Tolstoys

"The Last Station," written and directed by Michael Hoffman from a fact-based novel by Jay Parini about the last years of Leo and Sofya Tolstoy, shows off the Oscar-nominated duo of Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

'The Last Station,' with Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, Paul Giamatti, Anne-Marie Duff, Kerry Condon, James McAvoy. Written and directed by Michael Hoffman, based on the novel by Jay Parini. 112 minutes. Rated R for a scene of sexuality/nudity. Uptown, Guild 45th; see Page 15.

An elderly Russian man, his face bordered by a white beard so sparse it's almost ethereal, gazes at his wife of half a century, remembering their youthful days together. "We were incredibly, terrifyingly happy," he says, and his use of the past tense speaks volumes; it's a moment that's almost an entire movie, right there.

"The Last Station," written and directed by Michael Hoffman from a fact-based novel by Jay Parini about the last years of Leo and Sofya Tolstoy, is full of such moments, all acted beautifully by a cast you never want to take your eyes off, so as not to miss a tiny nuance.

The film, though, isn't entirely satisfying. Perhaps it's the tone, which dithers from comedy (there's oddly sprightly music early on) to melodrama to tragedy in a way that has us constantly readjusting our expectations; perhaps it's the way a less-interesting younger couple keeps interrupting the real story; perhaps the sense of place isn't quite as strong as it needs to be. (Hoffman made a no-win choice here: His actors speak in formal, faintly British accents, rather than following the admittedly senseless convention of speaking Russian- accented English. It's logical, but does make it rather easy to forget we're in Russia.)

Nonetheless, admirers of the great Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer will want to rush to the cinema to see this film, which shows off the Oscar-nominated duo (who have never shared the screen before) to fine effect. Mirren, in particular, has a marvelous time with the emotional, florid Sofya, a woman who inspires her spouse to remark, "You don't need a husband, you need a Greek chorus!" Furious at Leo's late-life decisions to will his property to the state and give away the rights to his novels, Sofya bellows and flings crockery about with abandon — yet Mirren never makes her a caricature. "I don't count anymore," Sofya says sadly, accepting that the man who once loved her seems to have left her behind.

And yet we see glimpses of that "terrifyingly happy" past; in particular, a charming, laughing bedroom scene in which Leo crows with pleasure. As "The Last Station" enters its sad final act, you find yourself mourning the couple that once was, before time irrevocably changed them.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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