The Last Station
Details: (M), 112 mins, In Cinemas 1 April 2010, United Kingdom, English
Synopsis: A love story set during the last year of the life and turbulent marriage of the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) and his wife the Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren). Having rejected his title and embraced an ascetic life style, Tolstoy finds himself increasingly at odds with Sofya. As his devoted disciple Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) urges him to sign a new will leaving the rights to his work to the Russian people rather than his family, the conflict between husband and wife escalates to breaking point. The whole affair is witnessed by Tolstoy's new secretary, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), whose burgeoning love for the beautiful and feisty Masha (Kerry Condon) is set against the waning love of Tolstoy and Sofya.
A handsome historical epic gets a romantic comedy makeover.
This handsomely mounted epic-in-miniature has fabulously respectable credentials. It’s the kind of picture that cynics call Oscar fodder. It’s a period piece that hangs heavy with weighty themes and real-life characters, gloriously mounted period settings and the kind of photography that rubs down all the hard edges into something smooth and pretty.
Parts of it are great fun mostly because the fine cast chew up their wordy dialogue with a sort of Shakespearean zeal that’s lively and exciting and writer/director Michael Hoffman keeps it all moving with sub-plots of intrigue, and romance. Still, it all feels a little artificial, larger than life in an old Hollywood way.
When Merchant and Ivory made pictures like this there was something earthy and true in all the earnestness. Here, it just feels like playacting. It’s supposed to be about the last days of the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), famous author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. In the movies conceit, Tolstoy, in life, a figure venerated throughout Russia and Europe, is like a secular king, surrounded by hangers-on, family, and sycophants – all with a large stake in his legacy.
As the movie opens Tolstoy is not long for this world. His writings and beliefs – including pacifism, vegetarianism and celibacy – have attracted a cult following with young people wanting to build a just and fair society. Hoffman reproduces these Tolstoyian communes like early 20th century pastoral hippie hang-outs, but without the long hair.
I’m not sure whether it’s entirely deliberate but there’s a sort of Santa-in-the-Mall air to Tolstoy’s regal visits to his acolytes. It could be a function of Plummer’s twinkly performance. He plays Tolstoy like a cheerful old codger who seems bewildered by all the fuss that whirls around him. Much of the stress he suffers derives from the contest over his will. Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), believes that Tolstoy ought to leave his literary fortune to the people of Russia. For Sofya (Helen Mirren), Tolstoy’s wife this is ludicrous.
At first her objections seem to offend her old-world sense of order (she even gets a line like “bloody peasants”). But as the movie progresses its clear that what lies behind her angst is the frustration of a devoted and loving wife to a famous man; she’s a partner who, like everyone else, has to wait in line. Mirren is fine in a ‘big-performance’ kind of way; she waves her arms, shouts, pouts, weeps and drones as Sofya starts to lose her grip on life under the yoke of Tolstoy’s mixed up feelings.
The movie's plot plonks down a character to negotiate the tricky maze of loyalties for the audience in the form of Valentin (James McAvoy). He’s a young writer who’s moved to tears on meeting the Great Man, when he finds out that Tolstoy has taken the time to read his work. He’s supposed to be private secretary to Tolstoy, but he’s a spy for Chertkov and later, for Sofya. He’s also a bit of a push-over and writer's-construct; the ‘blank slate’ who’s got to learn a bit about life’s complexity…A celibate virgin, he’s easily and readily seduced by another true believer, the lovely Masha (Kerry Condon); a romance that hits crisis once Masha follows her ambitions.
So Hoffman reduces the historical bio-pic to the stakes of a romantic comedy…will the lovers reconcile before the End? Will idealism, romance and Tolstoyian idealism live on in the form of Masha and Valentin? The Last Station has got its charms, but it’s hard to take its big ideas too seriously, mostly because Hoffman’s pitch is a little too cute.
When Soyfa wants to seduce Tolstoy she starts croaking like an Old Chook trying to get a rise out of an Old Rooster. Plummer starts to crow and they laugh and pound on the bed like a couple of kids. It’s a lovely human moment, and very cute. But it seems more to be about giving a couple of great actors a good scene than Tolstoy and the ties that bind, but rarely bond. The Last Station is unpretentious historical bio-pic. Instead it's like Merchant-Ivory have decided to shoot a rom sit-com starring Tolstoy and the Missus.
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