Last Station, The (Germany/Russia/United Kingdom, 2009)February 02, 2010
Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), or - more properly - Lev Tolstoy, is one of the two best-known 19th century Russian authors. His masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, are required reading in many high school and college literature classes, and both have received multiple screen adaptations. For the casual reader, however, less is known about the author than his projects. The Last Station seeks to rectify that, at least insofar as the writer's final year is concerned. Based on Jay Parini's semi-fictional novel of the same name, The Last Station transformers Tolstoy's waning days into material worthy of one of his tragedies while simultaneously making a biting statement about how the politics of a "movement" often warp the underlying philosophy which caused it to develop.
It's 1910 and Tolstoy's health is in decline. His relationship with his wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren), is rocky. She resents his growing distaste for wealth and is alarmed that he's considering re-writing his will to grant free license to his works after his death. She blames Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), the guiding force behind the "Tolstoyians," a small group of Christian anarchists, for turning her husband against her. For his part, Tolstoy readily acknowledges that he may be better at preaching than practicing his philosophy, which embraces passive resistance and chastity and opposes the ownership of private property. Chertkov's opposition to Sofya is shared by Tolstoy's daughter, Sasha (Anne-Marie Duff), who is a devout Tolstoyian.
The film's main character is Valentin Bulakov (James McAvoy), who is brought in by Chertkov for the dual purpose of serving as Tolstoy's secretary and proving a detailed account of everything said and done by Sofya. Valentin becomes one of the author's confidants, and he witnesses not only the friction in his marriage but also learns that power plays and politics have already diluted the "purity" of Tolstoyian philosophy. Valentin's personal devotion to Tolstoyian principles is tested when he falls in love with Masha (Kerry Condon), who values physical intimacy over chastity.
The Last Station derives much of its strength and energy from the performances of its two most celebrated stars. Both Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren are in top form. Scenes in which they appear, either which each other or in the company of other actors, are often electrifying. No one else is nearly as compelling. Especially disappointing is James McAvoy. The up-and-coming performer, who has appeared in such high-profile Oscar bait as The Last King of Scotland and Atonement, is unable to develop much of a presence. Part of the problem is the character. Valentin is a passive observer. He rarely acts, and is reduced to reacting. McAvoy's best scenes are those he shares with Kerry Condon, with whom he enjoys a sultry chemistry, but since the thrust of the movie is on Valentin's interaction with the Tolstoys, his relationship with Masha never develops into anything more substantive than a subplot.
Writer/director Michael Hoffman does a workmanlike job establishing time, place, and mood. His Russia feels like the Russia we have read about in books and seen in movies: a hard, unforgiving climate with warm summers and brutally cold winters. The events transpire only a few years before the Russian Revolution and there is evidence, especially in scenes featuring the peasants in Chertkov's commune, of growing unrest among the working class - an unrest that would soon remove the Czar in favor of the Marxists. During the closing credits, Hoffman provides grainy, silent footage of the real Tolstoy in clips taken shortly before his death.
The Last Station will draw its strongest support from those with a fondness for Russian literature and a desire to learn a little about Tolstoy, his background, and his marriage. (Although, by the time the movie begins, Tolstoy had already voiced dissatisfaction with elements of his great novels.) It's fascinating to see how life imitates art; the closing months of Tolstoy's life read like something he might have penned. One need not be familiar with War and Peace, Anna Karenina, or anything else written by the Russian great to appreciate the movie, however. The story is compelling enough to stand on its own, although it is hampered by a sluggish start and ramp-up. Mirren and Plummer slice their way through the rough spots so that on those occasions when Hoffman's mostly sure-handed direction sputters, the proceedings never stall. The Last Station has received some Oscar buzz, mostly for the performances of Mirren and Plummer (both of whom were nominated), but it's unclear whether Sony Classics' inept platform release of the film will bury it in an obscurity that will disallow any serious awards consideration.
Last Station, The (Germany/Russia/United Kingdom, 2009)
Cast: James McAvoy, Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, Paul Giamatti, Kerry Condon, Anne-Marie Duff, John Sessions
Screenplay: Michael Hoffman, based on the novel by Jay Parini
Cinematography: Sebastian Edschmid
Music: Sergei Yevtushenko
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
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