When the young Tolstoy disciple Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) arrives at the great Russian writer's country estate, Yasnaya Polyana, he has no idea of the pitched battle he's descending into.
On one side are the Tolstoyans — ardent, almost religious followers of Tolstoy. Late in his life, Tolstoy increasingly embraced a life of poverty and renunciation, and many took his teachings up as a philosophy, striving for social equality and individual purity.
Chief of the Tolstoyans is his friend Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who is maneuvering to get the author to rewrite his will and give away his estate for the sake of the movement.
Opposing him is Tolstoy's wife, the Countess Sofya Tolstoy (Helen Mirren), who curses the "fake religion and revolutionary nonsense" of her husband's disciples. She's desperately trying to keep the estate together for herself and for the inheritance of her children.
In between them is 82-year-old Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), who has no patience for the surrounding fracas though he ultimately drives it.
The fight is for posterity. Tolstoy, the writer of a few little books called "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina," will not be a living legend for long and everyone is trying to steer his legacy. He is followed by cameramen (early, kosovorotka-wearing TMZ reporters, no doubt) and his every utterance is scribbled down by secretaries.
"You all think he's Christ, don't you!" chastises Sofya, Tolstoy's wife of nearly five decades and a sometimes partner to his writing.
These last months of Tolstoy's life have long held a fascination for biographers and historians. "The Last Station" is based on the Jay Parini's historically based 1990 novel, which told the story a la "Rashomon" with six different perspectives.
In the film, our viewpoint is Bulgakov, who Chertkov dispatches to Yasnaya Polyana to keep an eye on things and "write everything down." A close study of Tolstoy's work (he brags that he's read "War and Peace" countless times, but revises that to "twice" after a skeptical look), Bulgakov is a wide-eyed Tolstoyan — a virgin and a vegetarian who wants to "perfect my very soul."
These pursuits of purity are shown to be folly in "The Last Station," which exalts the wonderful (and often entertaining) flaws of humanity — even those of deified artistic geniuses.
Plummer, sliding sturdily behind Tolstoy's beard, plays the aging author as constantly vacillating between charismatic focus and faraway distraction. He's full of doubt even as his beliefs are hardening ("Our privilege revolts me," he says).
But he shows irascible flickers of life and a zest for its messy vulgarity. He recalls a love affair to Bulgakov. He dances at his wife's dirty talk. With pride, he admits he's not much of a Tolstoyan, himself.
As Chertkov, Giamatti is cynical and calculating. He's a shrewd and callous politician, his rage boiling behind lip-biting smiles.
He finally erupts, disparaging Sofya and the New World at the same time: "If I had a wife like you, I would have blown my brains out! Or gone to America!"
Mirren's Sofya is coming undone. Watching her life with Tolstoy given away, she's a whirlwind of self-pity and she resorts to grandiose, hysterical theatrics. In one scene, she shimmies from one balcony to another to spy on a meeting between Tolstoy and Chertkov.
Our sympathies clearly reside with her — she's a glorious and utterly human mess. To no one's surprise, Mirren throws herself fully into the role.
In a quiet moment riding in an open carriage through a field with Bulgakov, she wonders of the Tolstoyans, "What do they know about love?"
Bulgakov is finding out. A carefree and confident girl working at the house, Masha (Kerry Condon), quickly convinces him purity isn't all it's made out to be. Condon, a relative newcomer in a film full of talented veteran actors, has a remarkable presence.
Bulgakov's conversion grows as Tolstoy's end nears. Though the part has less dynamism than Plummer's or Mirren's, McAvoy — naive and hopeful — proves an excellent vessel for the story.
Director Michael Hoffman ("A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Soapdish") lets his camera gaze up through the tall birch trees (Germany subbing for Russia) and boosts the volume on crickets in the woods.
The message is clear, if you didn't get it from the rich acting: This is a film to celebrate nature and life.