The Last Station
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A historical drama that illustrates Russian author Leo Tolstoy's struggle to balance fame and wealth with his commitment to a life devoid of material things. The Countess Sofya, wife and muse to Leo Tolstoy, uses every trick of seduction on her husband's loyal disciple, whom she believes was the person responsible for Tolstoy signing a new will that leaves his work and property to the Russian people.

September 04, 2009

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Captain Von Trapp and Queen Elizabeth II shine in this otherwise clutt

Reviewed by thesubstream

The Last Station, director Michael Hoffman's melodrama about the last months in the life of Leo Tolstoy, begins with fog and sleep. Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) lives with his family in a compound at Yasnaya Polyana, taking walks and writing and being seen to by his wife and the adherents to his "movement", people dedicated to his ideas of pacifism, vegetarianism, sexual abstinence and communal property who have gathered in a forest camp not far away. His wife, Sophia (Helen Mirren) wars openly with the head of his movement Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who she claims in his efforts to convince Tolstoy to sign the rights to his works over to the Russian people is trying to steal the wealth that is owed to her upon her husbands imminent death. Observing all of this is Tolstoy's new steward, Bulgakov (James McAvoy), a naive adherent who is torn between his love of the man and concern for his wife.

Hoffman's script, which is based on the novel by Jay Parini, quite often veers itself into confused territory, building up a complex tangle of threads and opaque motivations that ultimately don't resolve themselves in any satisfying way. The scope of the film is grand, and its story should reverberate just as Tolstoy, whose beliefs foreshadowed in some ways both the Bolsheviks' and those of pacifists like Ghandi. It unfortunately doesn't, it's un-unpickable, building up with much gusto confrontations that are constantly ravelling off into nothingness. The three-way relationship between the Church, the faithful Sophia and the unbelieving Tolstoy, for example, is referenced often. In the last section of the film a mute priest in a magnificent hat even shows up, but the script never expands on this beyond awkwardly inserting it into the story as an attempt at enriching it or providing some semblance of historical accuracy. There are a ton of details in the film, but not enough attention is paid to most of them and as a result the film feels cluttered, overburdened, energetic but unfortunately pointless.

At its heart is the love story between Sophia and Tolstoy, and that story, as baffling and cramped as it is, is the reason to watch the film. Mirren and Plummer are, unsurprisingly, the best things in the film. Plummer's Tolstoy is vague, at once confused and resolute, apprehensive and full of joy and certainty. Mirren's Sophia is in full panic, in a righteous lather, forced to watch and expected to be mute as her husband gives away his time, his possessions and his money to people who are unquestionably devoted to him but also clearly in possession of their own agendas. They're great performances, all the more so given the vast gulf between the real importance of the couple's place in history and the script's ability to support that, both Sophia and Tolstoy seem willed into the film by Mirren and Plummer alone, both making the best they can out of what meagre material is there. Giammati and McAvoy, both talented actors, are unable to do the same and Giamatti's Chertkov seems neither a revolutionary nor a thief (and not both at once, either) but rather a cipher, a stand-in for a whole package of unresolved anxieties and aborted historical impulses. The scope of this thing never boils down to anything, it hitches along, getting by on the strength of Plummer and Mirren and not much else. It's interesting and pretty, but ultimately unrewarding. 4.5/10

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