Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Review: "The Last Station"

"The Last Station" is one of those historical dramas that we instinctively want to like because it shows an important figure in a humanistic, fervorous light. Whether or not the events of the film accurately match their actual lives seems less important.

We'd like to think that the last months of the life of the great novelist Leo Tolstoy were filled with such passion, intrigue and romance. I tend to doubt it, but I like imagining so.

Helen Mirren is the star of this passion play as Tolstoy's wife Sofya. After nearly 50 years of marriage, she is resentful of the intrusions her husband's fame brings upon her and her children. Chief among these is Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), the leader of a movement based upon Tolstoy's writings.

The exact philosophy of the Tolstoyans is a little murky. They are pacifists who eschew personal property, and Chertkov seems to want to take things further until all human vices -- including sex -- are forbidden. Chertkov says that love is the central tenet of this faith, but he doesn't hold much of it in his heart.

Chertkov wants Tolstoy to sign away the copyright to "War and Peace," "Anna Karenina" and his other works to the Tolstoyans to support the movement.

Sofya, though, views this as not only impractical -- what will her family live on? -- but as a form of marital abandonment. At one point she muses on how she helped her husband while writing "War and Peace," with not only copying duties but suggestions for the story, and it's clear she views her husband's accomplishments as the result of their partnership.

Chertkov recruits a young Tolstoyan, Valentin (James McAvoy), to work as Tolstoy's secretary and act as his spy. The lad is bowled over by the attention the famous author lavishes upon him, but he also finds himself drawn to Sofya, and develops sympathy for her plight.

A virgin, Valentin also finds romance with Masha, a free-love advocate living at the nearby Tolstoyan commune. Played by Kerry Condon, Masha throws an appraising eye at the nervous young man, framed by some gorgeous laugh crinkles that render him helpless.

Tolstoy himself is something of a tertiary character in his own story. Played by Christopher Plummer, the author is mischievous and mysterious. He tries to be modestly dismissive of the movement that has sprung up around him -- "I'm not a very good Tolstoyan myself," he chuckles to Valentin. But Sofya isn't far off the mark when she accuses him of being seduced by sycophants and flatterers.

Written and directed by Michael Hoffman from the novel by Jay Parini, "The Last Station" is an enjoyable if unlikely fictional version of Tolstoy's last days. It's an opportunity for actors to fling a lot of big emotions around, raging and cooing and reveling. (A stage version seems an obvious next step.)

I most liked the scenes between Plummer and Mirren. They paint a believable portrait of what happens to love over time. Tolstoy resents a wife who doesn't share his relatively newfound convictions -- he rages that "Our privilege revolts me!" -- while she struggles to claim any identity outside the shadow of the great writer.

Love may make the world go round, but sometimes even the deepest romance suffers dry rot.

3 stars

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