Monday, January 25, 2010

Movie Review: The Last Station

The Last Station ** ½
Directed By:
Michael Hoffman.
Written By: Michael Hoffman based on the novel by Jay Paraini.
Starring: James McAvoy (Valentin Bulgakov), Christopher Plummer (Leo Tolstoy), Helen Mirren (Sofya Tolstoy), Paul Giamatti (Vladimir Chertkov), Anne-Marie Duff (Sasha Tolstoy), Kerry Condon (Masha).

We seem to get a movie like The Last Station every year. The film opens quietly without a lot of critical acclaim of box office, yet somehow manages to get right in the middle of the Oscar race. These films tend skewer towards older audiences, and have performances that get nominated for Oscars by aging stars that everyone loves. Mrs. Henderson Presents was one of those movies. So was Venus. Now, there is The Last Station.

The movie takes place in Russian in the early 20th century. Writer Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) is on his last legs, but is still writing, still trying to get his ideas out to “the people”. He is being pulled by all sides by people who want to manipulate him. His wife Sofya (Helen Mirren) is justifiably worried about her well being, and the well being of her many children by Tolstoy after he passes, but she goes so far over the top in her grief that its madness. Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), is the head of the “Tolstoyian movement”, which is new religion based on Tolstoy’s writing, although it seems more like a precursor to the hippie movement (without the sex) and a cash grab by Chertkov than anything else. Chertkov and Sofya hate each other, and are pulling Tolstoy in opposite directions – she wants his estate, writing and everything to go to the family, he wants it all to go to the “movement”. To ensure Chertkov gets his way, he installs Valentin Bulogakov (James McAvoy) as Tolstoy’s personal secretary – but Valentin isn’t quite the man for the job. Not only does he come to feel sympathy for Sofya, but like all young men, he is horny. Yes, it’s easy to maintain your virginity and purity when no one wants it. Much harder when someone like Masha (Kerry Condon) tries to seduce you.

So Valentin enters this house of madness, and is quickly pulled in many different directions. He admires, idolizes Tolstoy and his writings, and is honored that his idol takes such a personal interest in his own life. He tries to live the life of a good Tolstoyian, but he finds that even Tolstoy doesn’t adhere to many of the rules – after all how can a man who fathered 13 children preach about abstinence? He falls in love with Masha, despite the ire it draws for the other, more strict members of the movement, like Chertkov. And perhaps most importantly, he comes to sympathize with Sofya, who he had been led to believe was a monster. She is wildly over the top yes, but people are trying to come between her and her husband of 40-plus years, and steal the writing that she helped him work on. Who wouldn’t be upset?

The reason to watch this movie is clearly the performances, which for the most part keep the movie entertaining. McAvoy is good as the nervous young man torn apart by what he is expected to believe in, and his own personal morals. He provides a calm center for all the madness around him. Mirren goes wildly over the top, thrashing on the floor, yelling, screaming and hollering throughout most of her performance – but hell, I like over the top sometimes, so I enjoyed her theatrics. Giamatti has a one note role in Chertkov, but he plays that role to the hilt, and has a lot of fun, literally twirling his mustache. Plummer has less to do as Tolstoy, and I must say, he never quite sold it for me. He seems slightly schizophrenic, and I could never tell what one was going to show up from scene to scene – the man who loves his wife, or the one who is running away from her. This is the fault of the screenplay, not really Plummer’s, as he does what is supposed to do, but I never really believed in his character. His performance is also undermined by the fact that he spends seemingly the last act of the movie motionless in bed as he slowly dies.

In fact, it was this last act that finally undid the movie for me. For two thirds of the movie, I was entertained by the movie, even if I never quite believed it. It was fun in the old school kind of way of people being stuck in a remote farmhouse type of way. The performances kept it interesting. But when Tolstoy flees, and then is immediately taken ill and slowly dies, the movie fell apart for me. The last act is a lot of sound and fury, meaning nothing. I’m sure there will be some who love the movie – who else can you explain the fact that both Mirren and Plummer will likely be nominated for Oscars next week – but for me, it never quite gelled into anything substantive.

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