Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Video review: "The Last Station"

In the last years of his life, the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy was the subject of his own religion-slash-cult. He died not at his comfortable rustic home but a remote railway station.

These two historical facts are the jumping-off point for "The Last Station," a fictionalized account of Tolstoy's last months.

It's quite doubtful that Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), the leader of the Tolstoyans, actually sent Valentin, a young disciple (James McAvoy), to spy on the writer's family. Or that Tolstoy's wife, Sofya, was quite the fuming cauldron of anger and self-pity that Helen Mirren portrays her to be.

But as unlikely as writer/director Michael Hoffman's version of events is, it does make for a wonderful setting for this talented cast to rage and weep and otherwise emote expansively.

Tolstoy himself is something of a minor player in his own story. He's played with sly wit and veiled egotism by Christopher Plummer. Late in life, Tolstoy came to reject the comforts his riches had earned his family, and embraced a pastoral philosophy based on love and communal property.

Sofya, though, sees his desire to name the Tolstoyan movement as the main beneficiary in his will as an abandonment of their nearly 50 years of marriage.

Meanwhile, Valentin finds romance with Masha (an enchanting Kerry Condon), a Tolstoyan who especially believes in the movement's attitude regarding free love. He's equally charmed by the attention Tolstoy lavishes upon him, as well as finding Sofya a sympathetic figure.

Giamatti also has an interesting role, positioning Chertkov as a man who built a movement based on love, but doesn't seem to have much of it to express.

Extra features are a pleasing array of deleted scenes, outtakes and a featurette tribute to Christopher Plummer's career. The great actor also teams up with Mirren and Hoffman for a feature-length commentary track.

It's wonderful to see actors participate in these commentaries, which so often are boring recitations by the director working solo.

Extras are identical for Blu-ray and DVD versions.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars out of four

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