The Last Station (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

The Last Station is not a terrible movie, it’s just sad that it’s not better.

 

 

Louis Malle said it better than I can: “You must find the note, the correct key, for your story. If you find it, everything will work. If you do not, everything will stick out like elbows.”

With Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station we have a big budget production with excellent actors and technical elements that can’t decide on its tone and so ends up with a lot of elbows sticking out. This film wants badly wants to be epic but is more often tedious and feels much longer than its 112 minutes.

The story certainly is big enough. As he nears the end of his life, Count Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) is not only the most popular writer in the world but also the leader of a quasi-religious movement which advocates celibacy, vegetarianism and voluntary poverty. You could cut the irony with a knife since Tolstoy was born rich and for most of his life denied himself none of the pleasures of the flesh. Apparently now that his remaining days are few he wants to make the equivalent of a deathbed confession and leave his wealth to “the people of Russia.” Encouraging him in that direction is the ardent Tolstoyan Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) and Tolstoy’s daughter Sasha (Anne-Marie Duff), while his wife Sofya (Helen Mirren) is opposed to this sudden turn of affairs.

I have to say I’m with Sofya on this one. She was his partner in work as well as in life: her contributions include suggesting changes in War and Peace as well as copying it six times in longhand, and also she also bore him 18 children of which 13 lived. After almost fifty years of marriage she feels that interlopers are not only alienating the affections of her husband but also stealing her children’s inheritance. Basically she’s being dumped in her old age for a new trophy wife: the ego-pleasing prospect of guruhood. But she has no legal right to anything so must use devious means to try to achieve what nowadays would be covered by a pre-nuptial agreement.

Movies like this need someone to serve as the audience’s surrogate and that role is taken by Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), recently recruited to serve as Tolstoy’s secretary and also to spy for Chertkov. He arrives a committed Tolstoyan whose principles will soon be tested by the pleasures of real life in the form of the beautiful Masha (Kerry Condon). Bulgakov also finds himself caught up in the conflict between Chertkov and Sofya, and as is the custom of James McAvoy audience surrogates, he remains primarily an observer unwilling to lay it on the line by committing himself to anything.

So you have a big story about well-known people, sweeping vistas and artful candlelit interiors, antique steam trains, beautiful costumes and sets, impressively-swelling music and a great crew of actors. There are also enough modern parallels to make the conflicts meaningful even to the historically disinclined. The Tolstoy home is staked out by the 1910 version of paparazzi who later construct a tent city around the rail station at Astapovo while awaiting his death, making it the “last station” of the title in more ways than one. And let’s not forget that the antics of the Tolstoyans playing at being peasants are paralleled today by many privileged people who think that buying fair-trade coffee and eating a vegan diet is a reasonable substitute for social justice. Too bad it never quite works.

Most disappointing is the wasted acting talent, and this I can confidently lay at the feet of Michael Hoffman since he both directed and wrote the screenplay (adapted from a novel by Jay Parini). Helen Mirren is one of our finest living actresses but Hoffman seems determined to make her look ridiculous. Meanwhile, Plummer is excellent in some scenes but never establishes his character (unless he’s supposed to be schizophrenic, senile, or both). Giamatti has seldom looked more beady-eyed than as the power-hungry Chertkov, and when he and Mirren lock horns it’s a thing of beauty: it’s a pity we didn’t get more of those scenes. There’s also too much obvious exposition in the script and you have to wonder where the other 11 kids are: one of the sons is seen briefly but otherwise Sasha appears to be an only child.

Nonetheless, The Last Station has its pleasures. I dare you to not shed a tear during Tolstoy’s death scene, and there’s some hot romance from both the older and younger generation. Cinematography by Sebastian Edschmid is properly grand (with Germany providing a passable facsimile of Russia) and costume design by Monika Jacobs and art direction by Andreas Olshausen provide excellent period detail. The Last Station is not a terrible movie, it’s just sad that it’s not better.

And there’s one thing that does bother me: did the Tolstoyans really split logs with the blade of an axe rather than a maul and wedge? Maybe that was meant to show that they really hadn’t a clue about physical work, maybe the screenwriter hadn’t a clue, or maybe that’s how it was done in Russia at the time. I’m betting on door #2. | Sarah Boslaugh

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