Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Last Station Movie Review

Michael Hoffman has directed several films of average quality and The Last Station, written by Hoffman from the novel by Jay Parini, fits right in with his other work which includes such forgettable titles as The Emperor’s Club and Restoration. You’re forgiven if you have little to no memory of these films from 2002 and 1995, respectively.

The Last Station, released last year, earned two Oscar nominations for its stars Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer. They play Sophia and Leo Tolstoy in the early 20th century, before the Bolshevik Revolution altered Russia forever.Leo, or Lev, as he is lovingly called by family and friends, is nearing the end of his life and is set on establishing his overarching philosophy of socialism, hoping to pass his beliefs on to the next generation.

He and Sophia, married for forty years, are at constant odds with one another as she attempts to dissuade him from succumbing to the sycophantic prattling of Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), organizer of a movement of young people set on strict adherence to what they see as Lev’s late-age philosophy of sexual abstinence, elimination of private property and even distribution of wealth and labor amongst all the people.

Chertkov is one of the most devoted of the “Tolstoyans,” followers of Tolstoy who are attempting to convince him to change his will to leave the copyrights of his published works in the public domain rather than to his family. Sophia is necessarily upset by this as it will mean leaving nothing for her and the children after Lev’s death. A young man named Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) is assigned as Tolstoy’s personal secretary, but his real mission is to note down every word exchanged between Lev and Sophia and listen for evidence of her subversion.

Valentin is the kind of character who serves as the surrogate eyes of the audience. The story unfolds through what he witnesses and his attitude shifts based on his experience, just as we come to side more with Sophia in the end as we witness a devoted wife being shut out of the her husband’s final days not only by Chertkov, but by their daughter, Sasha (Anne-Marie Duff).

You can see the early workings of the binding principles that would foment the creation of the Soviet Union, including the way Valentin is used as a kind of spy, entrusted to the Tolstoy family, but whose real mission is secret and invasive. Valentin’s philosophical shift is not only the result of seeing Sophia as a person more than a member of the aristocracy, but also by his falling in love with Masha, a young woman living on the commune where he stays.

In addition to toying with the idea of Tolstoy as a kind of accidental father of the Revolution, Hoffman has a bit of fun with an early incarnation of paparazzi and celebrity fascination. Photographers are regularly stationed on the grounds of their estate, Yasnaya Polyana, trying to get a glimpse of the married couple arguing.

The film has a strange tone which may be one of its virtues because it never treats its subject as larger than life, as many biopics have a tendency to do. It never comes across as self-important and the last days of Leo Tolstoy are treated with a much lighter tone than you might expect. In fact, Tolstoy is something of a supporting character in his own story here. Sophia and Valentin are the true leads because, along with Valentin’s intellectual growth during the course of the story, we are meant to identify and empathize most strongly with Sophia.

This is because at the heart is of the film is the portrait of a heartbreaking marriage. Leo and Sophia have been married for so long, have lived so much as a part of one another’s lives that it’s nearly impossible for either of them to imagine being apart from the other, despite being at opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum. Even most of their children take their father’s side and see their mother as a preening wealth-monger who wants to destroy his legacy.

One of the best scenes in the film is one in which Leo and Sophia are, for a few moments, a desperately in love couple, regaining some semblance of the joy they once found in each other. It is because of this moment that the film earns the wellspring of emotion it digs for in the closing scenes as Leo abandons Sophia and takes ill at Astopovo Station, where he eventually dies.

It’s hard to say what exactly doesn’t work well in the film. Maybe it’s the attempt to connect the subject to the eventual October Revolution. Perhaps it’s the Chertkov character, who is never fully developed and comes across as a one-dimensional villain, a convenient roadblock to reconciliation between Sophia and Leo. Most of all I wonder if it’s the character of Valentin. He seems an unnecessary presence. The story might have been better told from an omniscient point of view, focusing more on the relationship between the Tolstoys than on the effect of their lives on a young bohemian.

The awards accolades bestowed on Mirren and Plummer are well-deserved. It’s just unfortunate they couldn’t have been blessed to have been in a film more worthy of their talents, or that isn’t likely to be forgotten within several years, relegating these roles to the annals of “Great Performances in Forgotten Films.”

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