Judge Clark Douglas is the author of the reprehensible Tolstoy knock-off Whore and Peas.
Intoxicating. Infuriating. Impossible. Love.
"If I had a wife like you, I would have blown my brains out. Or gone to America."
Facts of the Case
The year is 1910, and Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland) has just been chosen for a very special job. He is to be a personal assistant to Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer, Inside Man), the great Russian writer. Tolstoy is now a very old, very prestigious man whose writings and controversial political beliefs have earned him many followers. Tolstoy believes in non-violent anarchy, the re-distribution of wealth and pacifism. His wife Sofya (Helen Mirren, The Queen) is not particularly persuaded by her husband's politics, but she has no real problem with his beliefs until they start interfering with her own life. When she learns that Leo's associate Vladimir Cherktov (Paul Giamatti, The Illusionist) is attempting to convince the great writer to turn over all of his works to the public domain, she becomes furious. Valentin finds himself caught in the middle of this conflict, and also finds himself falling into a romantic relationship with a young woman named Masha (Kerry Condon, Rome).
The Last Station is a comedy/drama in the sense that half of it is a comedy and the other half is a drama. These two halves are evenly divided (the film slips from the former to the latter at about the halfway point), but they are not quite even in terms of quality. Surprisingly, it's the comedic portion that fares best. For a while, I was convinced I was witnessing one of the wittiest, most refreshingly staged biopics in quite some time, as the marriage of Leo and Sofya Tolstoy serves as the backdrop for a deliciously entertaining romp. I have no real problem with the idea of this fun stuff dissolving into more serious-minded drama, but the dramatic portion feels a good deal more conventional and just sort of causes the film to run out of steam by its conclusion. Even so, there's more than enough good stuff to make the film well worth checking out.
One refreshing element of the film is the manner in which it chooses to gently observe the characters rather than taking sides and pitting heroes against villains. Granted, the audience is likely to root against the scheming Paul Giamatti and for the frustrated Mrs. Tolstoy, but the characters each have their own reasonable (at least to them) motivations and are portrayed fairly and objectively. Tolstoy's own movement is neither hailed as marvelously progressive nor decried as harmful, as the film seems content to find amusement in the various absurdities and contradictions of the "Tolstoyan" community. Even Tolstoy himself admits that, "I'm not really a very good Tolstoyan."
As portrayed by Christopher Plummer, Tolstoy seems a blend of cheerful whimsy, foolish gullibility, and considerable stubbornness. He can be found with a twinkle in his eye nearly as often as he is seen with a cantankerous frown on his face, and his feelings on how firmly he believes people should adhere to his principles seem to change frequently. At this point, Leo has sort of lost track of just what his principles are: after he kills a mosquito, one of his devoted followers expresses shock at the fact that Tolstoy has broken one of his own rules and killed a living thing. The old man simply shrugs. Such a man is a delight to behold from a distance, but he must have been difficult to live with.
That's certainly the way that Sofya seems to feel. She is by no means a greedy or selfish person by ordinary standards; she's simply grown used to a certain way of life and she'll be damned if she's going to let her husband give away everything they own as some sort of cheerful political statement. She sternly points out her husband's hypocrisies on a regular basis, which he pays no mind. What is slightly overbearing constructive criticism from Sofya is perceived by Leo's followers to be a blatant attack on their precious movement, so the lady of the house is regarded as a dangerous enemy by Cherktov and friends. Despite their many moments of arguing, Mirren and Plummer have a wonderful chemistry together and share the film's most delightful moment, in which she convinces him to join her in making wild chicken noises.
James McAvoy is essentially this film's audience surrogate, as he was in The Last King of Scotland. However, this time around he gets to demonstrate his comic chops, stammering and sneezing his way through a series of uncomfortable situations during the film's first half. Giamatti's gift for seeming like he's always up to something is well-employed here, as the actor literally spends a great dealing of time twirling his mustache. Kerry Condon is charming in her role as McAvoy's love interest, even if her subplot feels a bit shoehorned in at times. She and McAvoy do what they can to make it work and their efforts pay off.
The transfer is quite stellar, nicely spotlighting the lush locations and offering solid detail. Darker scenes have fairly impressive depth and flesh tones seem warm and natural. The audio is fine too, with the colorful score playing a very prominent role. Dialogue comes through with clarity and the sound design is well-distributed if somewhat minimal. Supplements include a decent audio commentary with director Michael Hoffman, a charming but spotty commentary with Mirren and Plummer (they only speak during their scenes together), a gag reel (7 minutes), deleted scenes (12 minutes) and footage of an AFI tribute to Christopher Plummer (18 minutes).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I've focused a lot on the actors in the review thus far, and that's because without the very skillful performances of the main players the film wouldn't really be anything to write home about. What works well primarily works because the performers do such a good job of selling it; the screenplay and direction are merely average for the most part. The Last Station is a decent movie elevated by an exceptional cast.
Worth a watch, particularly for the splendid scenes between Plummer and Mirren (both of whom fully deserve all the acclaim they received). Still, it's too bad the film doesn't live up to the promise of its early scenes.
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