The Last Station

March, 2010, Drama

Directed by:Michael Hoffman

Starring:Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti, Anne-Marie Duff, and Kerry Condon




Writer/director Michael Hoffman’s latest effort has a lot going for it; a storyline about the last days of a towering literary genius, (Tolstoy) stunning cinematography (courtesy of Germany’s Sebastian Edschmid) the acting skills of Helen Mirren & Christopher Plummer as the author and his wife Sofya, (both nominated for Oscars, she as best actress, he as supporting actor) and a genuinely interesting premise. The film looks gorgeous and Hoffman’s dialogue sounds appropriately literate  - - yet despite these attributes, Station resembles half-baked bread, appealing from a distance, but disappointingly bland upon consumption. What happened?


Station chronicles the last months of Tolstoy’s life, long after he’d written the powerful novels which brought him both fortune and celebrity status. Retired to his country estate at the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the author focused his efforts on what devoted acolytes called The Tolstoyan Movement, an amalgam of economic and sociological ideas which advocated renouncing material wealth & sexual pleasure in order to improve the lot of Russia’s peasants, still only two generations removed from serfdom. The day to day activities of The Movement were overseen by Vladimir Chertkov, (Paul Giamatti) who convinced Tolstoy to sign a will conveying all his copyrights to sustain this utopian project. Quite naturally, Tolstoy’s wife Sofya, (Mirren) found this notion unappealing to her and the couple’s children.


Hoffman, whose screenplay works is based on a novel by Jay Parini, does an excellent job of skewering the author’s pretensions and personal inconsistencies…flattered by the adoring reverence of his youthful admirers, full of false modesty about his accomplishments and content to live in the type of personal luxury he would deny his children after his death, Plummer’s Tolstoy is in turn magnanimous, cranky, indecisive and very capable of being easily manipulated - - first by the often thunderous Sofya, then by the coldly obsequious Cherkov. When Tolstoy finally decides how to reconcile his estate planning wishes with the desire to spend the last days of his life in peace, the movie descends from the intermittently interesting to the dreadfully obvious, devoting the last reel to a death scene of which only Emile Zola could be proud.


Not content with the three lager-than-life characters Tolstoy’s life actually provided, Hoffman devotes nearly half his screenplay to Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) the author’s personal secretary. As Hoffman sees it, the impressionable Bulgakov became a crucial observer of the literary ménage a trios swirling around the count, his wife and the manipulative Chertkov, but after nearly two hours of well constructed histronics, Station ends without taking a position on any of the action which preceded it. Was Tolstoy a man so dedicated to his ideals that he’d risk the alienation of those he loved most, or a doddering old fool maneuvered into a shameful act of disinheritance by a cloying, power-hungry subordinate…or was he simply the victim of late stage senility? In a situation which cries out for a point of view, the director provides the cinematic version of the old “Lady or the Tiger” short story, consigning his carefully constructed film to the audience’s indifference.


It’s too bad; Mirren’s  always fun to watch when she’s chewing the scenery, McAvoy’s appealing, naive earnestness gets a very sympathetic rendering and Giamatti’s despicable Chertkov’s as loathsome a villain as Oil Can Harry - - but despite the idyllic landscapes, period costumes, sets and evocative locations, The Last Station diffidence about its subject matter makes for a quietly disappointing movie-going experience.

 The Verdict? A solid A+ in nearly every category except the most important one - -having a point of view.

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