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The Last Station

The Last Station feels more like a stuffy old British play than actual history

The Last Station

Directed by Michael Hoffman

The Last Station presents the fascinating last year in the life of Russian giant Leo Tolstoy, watered down by a cavalcade of coming-of-age story and biopic clichés. It’s too bad, because there is so much to explore in the great writer’s life story. Tolstoy wasn’t just the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina; the author was so popular in Russia at the end of his career that he inspired a religious and philosophical movement. (Sorry, L. Ron, you’re not all that original.) These Tolstoyans were essentially anarchists who mixed their beliefs with some of the teachings of Christ. They were vegans interested in spreading love and harmony, stuck to abstinence as the best policy and rejected organized religion. Still, it was Tolstoy’s ideas about pacifism and non-violent resistance that would have a lasting impact and directly inspire the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

The story begins at the Tolstoy estate circa 1909, as we are granted a view of the grounds and of the adjacent commune where students would farm and occasionally learn from the master himself. It’s here we meet the young Valentine (James McAvoy, looking like his character wandered in from Atonement), a young Tolstoyan idealist who applies to be the old man’s private secretary. No small feat, considering that Tolstoy is one of the most famous men in the world at this time, with Russian paparazzi waiting outside his house every morning hoping to catch a glimpse of the legend.

Valentine is invited to live on the Tolstoy property, within the new-age commune. He’s honest, cares about everyone and is painfully nervous and shy (probably because he’s never been with a woman). Essentially, he’s the walking embodiment of someone who will come of age, Summer of ’42 style. In no time, he’s losing his virginity, proclaiming his love for a fellow commune member and eventually morphing into a stud muffin with convictions.

The commune feels like a college dorm or summer camp, which is all well and good, but I thought I was watching a movie about Leo Tolstoy. Why did the filmmakers think it would take this kind of hokey story to hook the audience? You could not have a more fascinating subject: The marriage of Tolstoy and Sofya is the stuff of legend, and Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren are more than up to the task of eking out every salacious detail. Plummer wisely underplays Tolstoy as a man tired of everyone treating him like he’s a god. Mirren is sensational as his bi-polar diva of a wife; whether she’s smashing plates, crackling like a chicken during sex, throwing tantrums while holding a handgun or staging a spectacularly dramatic suicide attempt by the pond, the actress is a joy to watch.

The main conflict in the film centers on Tolstoy’s will. Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), the founder and organizer of the Tolstoyan movement, wants to give Tolstoy’s estate and the rights to his work to the Russian people (a crucial move for the growth of the movement), while Sofya will stop at nothing to thwart his plans. Giamatti has always had the uncanny ability to make every character he plays seem instantly unlikable and untrustworthy, and Chertkov is no exception — he comes off as a complete slimeball.

Despite the film’s shortcomings, I rather enjoyed the characters. Perhaps they would have been more at home in a British sitcom. (Anyone interested in optioning Tolstoy Knows Best?) But not for a moment did the movie convince me that I was watching actual historical figures. Roger Ebert described why he cared about these characters: “In real life, I learn, Tolstoy provided Sofya with more unpleasant sunset years, but could we stand to see Helen Mirren treated like that?” That’s the perfect summation of the film, and explains why The Last Station feels more like a stuffy old British play than actual history. Still, Mirren is able to make the film somewhat satisfying in the end, providing yet another reason why she rules the cinema.

– Anthony Nicholas

Originally posted in Creative Loafing