Sofya Tolstoy (Helen Mirren) and Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) © Sony

The Last Station tells the story of the final days of the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), who in his later years, in the name of his created religion, renounced his noble title, his property and even his family in favor of poverty, vegetarianism and celibacy. After fifty years of marriage, and thirteen children, none of these conditions are okay with his devoted wife, the Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren) whose world is now turned totally upside down.

Into this minefield comes Valentin (James McAvoy), Tolstoy’s new assistant. Young and gullible, he immediately becomes a pawn, sent by Tolstoy’s trusted disciple, Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), to undermine Sofya’s plans to get her husband back.

Earlier this week, in Los Angeles, Helen Mirren and James McAvoy spoke of their roles in this very unusual movie.

When you first heard about this project and you heard about these characters were you in a state of disbelief that these people were real?

Helen Mirren: Yes, that they lived life at such a pitch I think was pretty interesting and amazing. We have an understanding of the Russian character from Chekhov’s plays, and that sense of a people who can laugh one minute and cry the next, and who live life on an emotional level with great facility, and Tolstoy and Sofya fit exactly into the prototype in the middle of incredibly serious things going on, and it’s funny.

Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) and Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) © Sony

James McAvoy: I felt really Chekhovian. The idea as well that Tolstoy was such a demigod if not a Messiah to a lot of people was just [crazy]. The belief in him was so great is something that I was so surprised by, I just knew him as the guy who wrote War and Peace. I didn’t know about all that. To be in the situations and have the emotions fill the entire room was incredible. I don’t even know about it being hard to believe that this is based on reality, but when you get into it, it feels really real.

James, did you ever feel you that your character, Valentin, should have had that moment where you confront Tolstoy and say, ‘Don’t you see how much Sofya loves you?’

James McAvoy: Perhaps for the story, but remember he was his secretary, he wasn’t his priest. And also as much as he was a complete believer to begin with, part of the story is about his moving away from his [obsession with Tolstoy] and learning how to fall out of love with Tolstoy; but even at the end [when Tolstoy’s dying] he couldn’t say to the people in the room, ‘Let it end.’

Sofya Tolstoy (Helen Mirren) © Sony

Helen Mirren: Also that’s the one area that Michael Hoffman (the writer and director) readjusted the history somewhat. Valentin wasn’t at the train station, Valentin was in Moscow at that time. Much of it is based on absolute reality, they all did diaries, and all of this is true, but Valentin was not at the railway station.

James McAvoy:Valentin learnt from what was happening between Tolstoy and Sofya so clearly that he went, ‘Screw this, I’m going to find Marsha (Kerry Condon),’ the woman he loved. But he doesn’t turn his back on Tolstoy, because he does go on to become an enclave leader in Prague, and a Tolstoyan prophet, but he want off to Moscow to be with her. Michael felt if he went to Moscow it was going to weaken the story.

What stuck me was how much humor there was in the film. Was that all on the page?

Kerry Condon and Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) © Sony

Helen Mirren: It was all on the page, absolutely. That’s what attracted all of us to the script, certainly me, was that wonderful sense of humor, and that’s very much Michael, that’s the genius of his writing.

James McAvoy: It’s so rare that you see a period movie with a sense of humor, and maybe a bit of slapstick as well. I’m not saying that this is the first of a new genre of films, but I’m not used to seeing that in that type of movie.

Helen Mirren: I think it’s also what brings you into the movie. I felt when I was watching it that I was in that world with them. So often when you’re watching a period film it’s beautiful and it’s mesmerizing and interesting, but you’re sort of outside of it watching all these people in funny clothes and with incredible hair and horses and carriages going by.

With this one you’re in there, it’s dirty, the people are real and I really felt that you didn’t have that sense of watching a period drama, and I think that has a lot to do with Michael. It is the untidiness of Russia and the messiness of it that makes you feel you’re in the real world.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter. More by Judy Sloane