Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Monarch's Final Days

The Last Station

Written and directed by Michael Hoffman
Starring Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, Paul Giamatti, James McAvoy, Anne-Marie Duff, Kerry Condon

Chistopher Plummer and Helen Mirren in The Last Station

Plummer and Mirren

Based on Jay Parini’s novel, The Last Station follows the last days of Leo Tolstoy, Russia’s most famous writer and a man aware of his imposing legacy to the Russian people, which was at odds with his own family’s well-being and wishes.

Michael Hoffman’s film resembles his earlier A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which starred Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer): there’s a pleasing visual palette, several name actors and a sense that Hoffman is afraid to deal with the material’s more troubling aspects, instead remaining on the surface. That approach could be excused in Dream, since Shakespeare’s humor is often accentuated at the expense of his play's nightmarish darkness.

In The Last Station, Hoffman’s uncertainty results in a stilted history/literary lesson and middling cinema. Hoffman and his source novel enter Tolstoy’s world through secondary characters like the charismatic Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti), Russia’s leading Tolstoyan, who convinced the elderly writer that he should leave all copyrights of works like War and Peace and Anna Karenina to the Russian people in perpetuity.

There’s also Valentin Bulgakov (MacAvoy), whom Chertkov hires as Tolstoy’s estate secretary so he can spy on Tolstoy’s wife Sofya (Mirren), an intelligent, stubborn woman dead set against the Tolstoyans, whom she considers an illegitimate religious cult, and especially Chertkov, because she distrustingly believes he's having her husband draw up a new will that will leave his family in the dust.

Hoffman wants us to relate to Valentin, our guide. The young man is understandably unnerved meeting the great writer, but his constant, nervous sneezing grows tiresome—there’s even a scene when, during an argument between Leo and Sofya, Valentin sneezes and both stop to say, “God bless you."

It's plausible that he’s even moved to tears after meeting and speaking with Tolstoy, who queries him about his ordinary life, but Hoffman stacks the deck dramatically. The inexperienced Valentin falls for Masha (Condon) a headstrong woman who lives on the estate with the Tolstoyans: after she deflowers him one night, he’s smitten. This may be true, but Hoffman errs by having McAvoy overplay Valentin’s incessant bumbling to indicate Valentin’s uncertainty, and ends up with an unsatisfying hybrid of romantic comedy and absorbing backroom drama.

Hoffman is on firmer ground with the Tolstoys’ complicated, convincingly lived-in relationship. The credit for humanizing rather than deifying Tolstoy and his wife Sofya is due to the commanding performances of Plummer and Mirren, who have a rare screen chemistry. Even a throwaway scene in which they cluck like hens and laugh while reminiscing about their younger, more fertile days shows their mastery. Mirren is a mite showy as Sofya—who feels she’s been wronged by her husband’s minions, including daughter Sasha—but she’s in splendid form, especially during her snippiest moments, haranguing Chertkov with snappy repartee.

Plummer is even better. This accomplished theater actor gives it his all as if he’s playing Lear, Prospero or another meaty Shakespearean part. And he might well be: with a long, bushy, scraggly beard and keen, excitable eyes, Plummer plays Tolstoy as the monarch of a kingdom he knows might be crumbling. In a scene with McAvoy discussing an long-ago assignation Tolstoy had with a young woman, watch Plummer’s entire face light up at such a vivid memory, regardless of his life with his wife and family in the years since.

There are too few scenes like that, however, as Hoffman concentrates on the standard romance between Valentin and Masha, even ending the film with their tearful reunion when the great man has died and thrown the whole country into mourning. Opposite McAvoy, Condon is a fiery, sensual Masha, while Giamatti tries without much success to keep pace with these British and Irish actors in a period film set in Russia (but shot in Germany, by the ace cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid, who gives us a gorgeous palette of trains, woods and blue skies).

Throughout The Last Station, there's ivory-tinkling that’s not unpleasant but a little monotonous. Too bad that music by Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky or Tchaikovsky wasn’t used, since they were contemporaries of Tolstoy; fellow Russian Sergei Yevtushenko’s serviceable score instead keeps the movie mired in mediocrity.

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