Going nowhere slowly in The Last Station

Historical dramas, like book-to-film adaptations, are by nature contentious among film critics. Purists will nitpick at every factual inaccuracy while directors often feel liberties must be taken in order for the audience not to feel as if they are watching the History Channel. Fair enough…

But, however and nonetheless, the idea behind making a film about a particular historical figure is surely to highlight his importance and examine the mark he made. It should, at the very least, let the audience get a sense of zeitgeist while being offered the opportunity to explore the nature and depth of the subject. Michael Hoffman’s latest film, The Last Station, however, does none of the above. It traces the last days of one of literature’s greats, Russian author Leo Tolstoy (b. 1828-1910), and what a subject! Yet, Hoffman disappointingly fails to lend the gravitas an icon like Tolstoy both commands and deserves.

The plot focuses on the relationship between Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) and his wife, Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren) during the writer’s last days. While their marriage is based on passion and love, the union is a turbulent one. After 48 years together, Tolstoy is no longer the same wealthy nobleman Sofya had married. Following the publication of what may arguably be two of the greatest novels ever written, War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877) – which Dostoevsky called “flawless as a work of art” – Tolstoy turns his attention to the plight of the poor in Russia. He’s become a ‘pacifist anarchist’ (an oxymoron perhaps?). He turns away from fiction and instead turns to writing papers advocating so-called ‘passive resistance’. Private property is to be relinquished and wealth distributed to the masses, including Tolstoy’s own (much to the chagrin of his wife).

Tolstoy’s beliefs and writings inspired a Hippie-like cult following, who called themselves Tolstoyans, and the sub-plot of the film concerns this group of ardent worshippers, who saw the writer as a kind of Messiah. They don’t believe in indulging the pleasures of the flesh. Sex is strictly forbidden – perhaps it’s not passive enough? Meat and money are also frowned upon. Tolstoy’s greedy lawyer, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), deviously uses this group to encourage the writer to relinquish the copyrights to his books and ‘bequeath’ it to the people. To help him, he dispatches the young Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) to keep a watchful eye on Sofya.

There is a lack of depth and focus to the film, which gets bogged down in details that contribute nothing to an understanding of the subject. Granted, Tolstoy is not the protagonist of the film. The story is meant to be seen from Bulgakov’s point of view, which explains why we’re forced to endure the developing, and exceedingly dull, romance between Bulgakov and a fellow (female) Tolstoyan in detail. McAvoy’s character in The Last Station is an echo of the blue-eyed, innocent boy he played with so much candour in The Last King of Scotland. This time, however, there is no sparkle to his performance. It could be the fault of the script or the direction – Bulgakov’s contribution to both the plot-development and denouement simply feels redundant.

One of the film’s few redeeming qualities is the performance of the inimitable Helen Mirren, who cannot put a foot wrong. As the hysterical, melodramatic Countess Sofya she once again dazzles, earning her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress earlier this year. Christopher Plummer was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor, although he was never going to rival Jeff Bridges.

The Last Station feels a bit helterskelter and lacks cohesion. It starts off with enough pace, but slows down to the point where I was left wondering when the train would finally dock at the station and I could disembark.

Director & Screenwriter: Michael Hoffman
Cast: Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti
Awards: Academy Award nominations for Helen Mirren (Best Actress) and Christopher Plummer (Best Supporting Actor)

Rating: 2 out of 5
Ps. I think I shall go for an action blockbuster next to get the pulse racing – Iron Man 2, here I come!
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