Ideals take a romp in the proverbial hay!
The Last Station
Directed by Michael Hoffman
Egoli Tossell Films, R, 112 mins.
* * *
What if someone created a movement from your ideals and principles? Would you be pure enough and devoted enough to join? This is the central conundrum of The Last Station, a film that looks at the final days on earth of Russian author Lev Tolstoy.
The narrative is based on Jay Parini’s historical novel and is a work of imagination that should not be confused with a Tolstoy biography. This much is true. Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) was, in his lifetime, a beloved figure around which a movement crystallized. In his late life, in fact, he was more famous as a social philosopher and humanist than as the author of War and Peace. Follower embraced Tolstoyan ideals that were a mix of pacifism, social leveling, and aestheticism--a Russian analog to British Fabianism. For movement leaders such as Vladimirr Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) and devotees such as Tolstoy’s personal secretary, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), Tolstoy was a secular Christ. There’s a lovely scene early on when the young Bulgakov first meets Tolstoy and is moved to tears when he learns his beloved master has actually read his work.
The film’s drama centers on Tolstoy’s inability to control his own image. He is pulled in various directions by sycophants—including his own daughter Sasha (Ann-Marie Duff)--by the scheming Chertkov, by his own passions, and especially by his aristocratic wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren), who is more interested in her future inheritance than in the health of the “movement.” What’s an aesthete with a healthy appetite for sex supposed to do? The plot is a cat-and-mouse game to the bitter end between Chertkov and Sofya, with Tolstoy caught in the middle and Valentin charged with spying for both sides. Valentin’s not very good at it, because he’s wrestling with his own earthly temptation: the seductive Masha (Kerry Condon).
This film is great fun for its acting. Plummer plays Tolstoy with precisely the right amount of tension between ice and fire, and McAvoy superbly plays monkey-in-the-middle to Plummer and Giamatti. The latter is superb as Chertkov, a waxed moustache-twirling plotter who is equal parts puritanical and demonic. What is more important, Tolstoy the person or Tolstoy as a movement icon? Kudos to Giamatti for suggesting but never quite tipping his hand. Oddly, the weak link in the ensemble is Helen Mirren. Many of her scenes are over-the-top. Perhaps those histrionics are written into the script, but more machinations and less screaming would have made Sofya more convincing.
As much as we enjoyed the acting, The Last Station would probably be more powerful as a play than as a movie. The filmic possibilities were wasted by director Michael Hoffman. We do not see Mother Russia at her pre-revolutionary worst; in fact, we can’t recall ever seeing such clean peasants or prim communards. None are more so than the delicious Kerry Condon, who can split multiple cords of wood and keep her makeup intact. Views of the countryside similarly looked more like pastoral tableaux than real-life farming. Hoffman made curious choices throughout the movie. No one attempts a Russian accent, which was probably wise, but it might have been a good idea to get everyone in the same chapter if not on the same page. McAvoy is Scottish, Condon is Irish, Mirren is English, Plummer is Canadian, and Giamatti is American. Put them together and it’s more like the lobby of the United Nations than the verdant fields of Russia.
Still, it is a real joy to see fine actors ply their craft, accents and clumsy direction be damned. The film is very rich in ideas. Is a utopian vision that stifles human nature a contradiction in terms? Do principles liberate, or imprison? Can the mind ever be truly free of the body? What would we sacrifice to be true to our own values? The Last Station is no masterpiece, but it’s definitely worth seeing. And Christopher Plummer was born to play Tolstoy. If anyone gets around to making a biopic, Plummer should be the first person called.