Wednesday, 3 March 2010

The Last Station (2009)

* * *

(Dir. Michael Hoffman, 2009)

James McAvoy (Atonement, The Last King of Scotland) is the young scholar and virgin, Valentin Bulgakov, recruited as personal secretary to Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) in the political philosopher's final months. He is appointed by Tolstoy's chief disciple, the unnervingly calm Vladimir Chertkov. The audience perceives everything through Bulgakov and as he begins to learn firsthand who Leo Tolstoy really is (the Leo Tolstoy of the biographer and director), we forsake the expected political and spiritual idealism for a more disturbing enlightenment: sex, discord and self-doubt. Bulgakov becomes part of the Tolstoy household: he falls in love with the seductive Masha (Kerry Condon), provides emotional support for the ostracised Countess (Tolstoy's wife played by Helen Mirren), attends Tolstoy's business, and is even present at his master's deathbed. While it lasts, Bulgakov's innocence blushes endearingly beside an assured and nostalgic Tolstoy.

The predominant, pleasant setting is rural Russia until we arrive at the title-destination. Here, at a train station, hidden amidst an urban community, Tolstoy passes away in too flimsy a death scene: a fairy tale piano dilutes what should be absolute pathos. The business of the story is Tolstoy's will. He has agreed to donate his fortune to the proletarian cause, to the teaching of his politics through Chertkov who Sofna despises, viewing her husband's decision as a personal betrayal.

Tolstoy is torn between two opposed zeals; that of a passionately possessive wife and a dispassionately possessive disciple. Both means are essentially good: the love of the long-married and the pilgrimage for social justice. And yet both perpetrators, played as skillfully as is possible by Helen Mirren and Paul Giamatti, are rigid and predictable types, forbidden to evolve until Tolstoy is confined to his deathbed (no doubt Hoffman will argue this is the point). This tiring character-dichotomy, causing Tolstoy's plunge from people's prophet to feeble mediator, makes for a lacklustre narrative. In an excellent catharsis however, the plot is reconciled by a stunning encapsulation of public mourning and a dramatic reunion of lovers: the direction amounts to a clever and powerful symbiosis of Tolstoy's public and personal desires.

For a film about the end of Leo Tolstoy's life, The Last Station is callously oversimple. Any picture that aims at tragedy, not by separating romantic love through politics but by separating romantic love from politics, is treading water from the word go. It isn't that Hoffman should shy away from either the communion or the conflict Tolstoy inspired; only I wish the former could have featured more. The Last Station is a writer-biopic whose sentient watercolours can be likened to The Hours (Woolf) and Bright Star (Keats), except this portrait is fleeced of stamina. This is a real shame, particularly since the movie has ironically succeeded at Britain's most commercial picture-hotel; the Odeon. One wonders what Tolstoy would have made of it all.

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