February 11, 2010

The Last Station

Stop - your fake whiskers are tickling me

Grade: B –

Director: Michael Hoffman

Starring: Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti, Anne-Marie Duff, and Kerry Condon

MPAA Rating:

Running Time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

Leo Tolstoy is regarded as one of the world’s greatest novelists, penning such masterpieces as War and Peace and Anna Karenina. He was a Christian anarchist and educational reformer whose teachings inspired a movement formed by his followers, called Tolstoyans. But, if writer-director Michael Hoffman is to be believed, all you need to understand the famous author is summed up his quote that opens The Last Station: “Everything I know, I know only because I love.”

Divining the true object of Tolstoy’s affections is the premise of Hoffman’s film, which is set in 1910 and tracks the writer’s final days from his home at Yasnaya Polyana to the Astapovo railway station where he finally succumbed to pneumonia. We see the warring camps through the eyes of a fresh-faced disciple played by James McAvoy. On one side is Sofya (Helen Mirren), Tolstoy’s wife of over 40 years, mother of 13 children (five died during childhood), and his secretary and manger during his most productive literary years. Over time, however, their relationship soured greatly, and her role in Tolstoy’s life is eventually supplanted by his Tolstoyan followers, particularly their founder, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti).

The Last Station details the battle between Sofya and Chertkov for Tolstoy’s spirit, revolving principally around ownership of the copyrights to Tolstoy’s early, most lucrative works. Chertkov wants Tolstoy to renounce his interest in them ostensibly so they can be enjoyed freely by the Russian people; Sofya sees them as his personal and financial legacy, compensation for years of hard work and sacrifice.

Any examination of right and wrong in this conflict is a far murkier than the position Hoffman takes, which is solidly behind Sofya, a histrionic but devoted spouse who sneers at Chertkov’s duplicitous, high-minded cooing. Giamatti’s performance is delectably devious given the part he’s given; any fault in the way Chertkov is presented rests squarely on Hoffman’s one-dimensional rendering.

Hoffman ignores any detailed analysis of the sweeping political issues or influences at play, nor does he explicate obvious subplots such as why Sasha (Anne-Marie Duff), Tolstoy’s daughter, aligns herself with Chertkov against her mother.

Although the screenplay is actually adapted from a 1990 novel by Jay Parini, the stagey presentation of this subject-matter makes the film feel like a cross between The Lion in Winter and The Madness of King George; indeed, Count and Countess Tolstoys’ noble titles only reinforce the palace drama ambiance.

All that said, The Last Station is not strictly a high-gloss biopic or stuffy agitprop. At its heart, this is an acting exercise for the ageless Plummer and Mirren, both Oscar-nominated for their performances. Both play their meaty roles to the hilt; Mirren gets to crash through a windows, fall into a pond, and fire off a firearm, while Plummer clucks like chicken as foreplay before one of Leo and Sofya’s few intimate moments.

The closing credits contain rare, vintage footage of Tolstoy and others characters depicted in the film. Beyond the historical significance, it is the one instance when The Last Station feels authentic, not something being projected – however ably – to the balcony of a West End theatre.

Neil Morris

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