Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Last Station: A Review


Cyrillic Silliness...

It has been a long time since I've read a novel, and when I do, I gravitate toward fantasy and mystery. That might be a goal this year: read more novels and put down my history and biography books. I might even give the works of Leo Tolstoy a chance. I confess I have never read War & Peace or Anna Karenina (though I did enjoy another Russian masterpiece: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). Therefore, I don't know much about Tolstoy and went into The Last Station quite unaware of whether or not it is historically accurate. It may be, it may not, but it is entertaining though uneven at times.

Count Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) is in his final years. He finds himself the head of the Tolstoyan movement, a belief system that renounces private property, wealth, and espouses pacifism and celibacy. Tolstoy's estate reflects his belief system: a bit run down and a loving but sexless marriage to his wife, Countess Sofya (Dame Helen Mirren). She endures all this with a open contempt for what she considers nonsense. She has a rivalry with Tolstoy's chief disciple, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). They hate each other and struggle to be civil to each other while secretly plotting to gain the affection and loyalty of the ageing Count.

Into the mix comes Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), a devoted Tolstoyan. Vladimir hires Valentin to be Tolstoy's private secretary and to keep a diary of what he hears all around him (in effect, to spy on the Countess). Valentin goes and soon the Countess takes him into his confidence, giving him a diary so he can write what he hears all around him (in effect, to spy on the Tolstoyans). Through those months he spends at the Tolstoys, Valentin discovers physical love with Masha (Kerry Condon), a girl at Tolstoy's commune, and comes to see that the ideals of Tolstoy may not be worth certain sacrifices and actions, especially against the Countess whom he begins to sympathize with.

If memory serves correct, this is the second film with James McAvoy where the story is really about his character and the historic figure he's involved with is a secondary role (the first being The Last King of Scotland). Overall, The Last Station is an interesting and engaging look into the private life of a literary legend. Plummer's Tolstoy is a cross between a hippie and a Shaker, a man who has a large, ebullient personality and is quite open about what he thinks. He also brings the conflict between his belief system and his love for his wife. Giamatti's Vladimir is not exactly a bad guy but one who is more committed to the Tolstoyan Movement than even Tolstoy (at one point the Count comments something along the lines that he's not the best Tolstoyan) and considers the Countess to be borderline evil or insane. McAvoy's real-life wife Anna-Marie Duff as Tolstoy's daughter Sasha creates a daughter loyal to her father and her cause, even though it causes a rift with her mother.

Even though James McAvoy is almost thirty, he still is able to project a youthful innocence to his Valentin. The story is really about him, and he manages to carry the story of a man who grows to maturity, mental and physical, quite well.   He remains among my favorite actors.

As his first lover, Condon creates a Masha who is a bit like Tolstoy: bright, outspoken, unafraid of life and love. Curiously, the only one that comes off badly is Mirren as Countess Sofya. She is bordering on hysterical and over-the-top through most of the film, and makes The Last Station come off almost as a drawing room farce.

In fairness to Mirren, through most of the film writer/director Michael Hoffman creates a light, almost comedic mood in the film. There is the business of Valentin sneezing every time he's nervous, which is a great deal of the time. Even at moments which call for more seriousness, you still chuckle, as when Countess Sofya keeps replacing a photo of Vladimir with one of herself and Tolstoy or when she seduces her husband with bird calls.

Sergie Yevtushenko's score adds to the comical nature of the peace, which is why when the film does take a dark turn in the last act the radical shift takes us by surprise. The death watch for Tolstoy is akin to the paparazzi today, with the travails in the Tolstoy's marriage grist for the early 20th-century's gossip mill. There is also less time devoted to the effects the struggle to control the copyright to Tolstoy's works (Sofya wanting them after his death, Vladimir to "the people", i.e.. his group) has on the Tolstoy family itself. We get a brief scene between Sofya and her son but nothing came of it. That plot point was left unanswered.

As it stands, The Last Station is by no means a perfect film. Mirren's performance especially veers close to parody until the end when she can pull herself together. All the other performances, especially Plummer, are more grounded than hers although at times they are more comedic. Overall, it has enough charm and delight to have us ride this train.


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