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Film Review: The Last Station

The Last Station (2009; Directed by Michael Hoffman)

A slightly ham-handed reimagining of Tolstoy’s final days, Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station is a decent match to its subject’s great fiction on the surface, but fails to scratch at the deeper truths of existence as Tolstoy does.

We are Russian, we eat flowers!

Though Czarist Russia would endure for seven more years after Tolstoy’s death, it’s no stretch to see the final vestiges of a fading social order petering out with the passing of the great novelist. Hoffman and his production team clearly seem to recognize this convergence and construct their film with it in mind. The stolid Merchant-Ivory-like recreation of late czarist Russian society is keenly detailed and distinctly autumnal, and the bohemian idealism and communal austerity of the Tolstoyans presage the similar but more aggressive and destructive efforts of the Bolsheviks. Jay Parini’s novel, on which the film is based, recognized that the tug-of-war for Tolstoy’s work (and, by extension, for his soul) between his forward-thinking followers and his affected aristocratic wife in his final days was emblematic of the mass upheavals to come, and Hoffman does not wholly lose sight of that either.

Still, there’s a bluntness and lack of subtlety to the whole process that begins to grate after a while. The screenplay endeavors to place a strain of Tolstoy’s realist language into the characters’ mouths, but without the master novelist nigh-invisible artistry, much of it comes off as flat.

The actors do what they can and more, pros that they are. Christopher Plummer puts the count through the dramatic paces with thespianic elan, but he isn’t as transcendent as we might hope. Part of what made Tolstoy such a legend in his own time was that he poured so much of his own life and the lives of those around him into his masterpieces. Certainly, most writers do, but Tolstoy’s synthesis between life and work made the two things inseparable and also larger than life. Plummer’s Tolstoy is a tired old man who can still find a mischievous smile when he tries; it’s a very human portrayal, but Tolstoy could mix the human with the superhuman and never show you the strings. Plummer is very good, but not quite great.

He’s gamely supported by the various people grasping for his attentions around him. Helen Mirren knocks Countess Sofya out of the park, but then she usually rocks these sort of prestige roles. James McAvoy once again plays the adorably awkward idealist whose illusions are shattered, but he never plays that role the same way twice. Kerry Condon is his lively, lovely foil. Paul Giamatti provides the lowlight, which is quite unlike him. Perhaps we’re meant to see into Chertkov’s perspective, but Giamatti plays him as such a weasly wanker – at times literally twisting the ends of his waxed mustache like a cartoon villain – that it’s impossible to identify with him, and thus with the proto-hippie Tolstoyans.

Perhaps I expect too much or just the wrong thing; there’s no need for a film about Tolstoy to share the myriad epiphanies of love and life that his fiction provides so amply. Hoffman’s film is willing to borrow or reference a few of those transcendent elements (there are subtle nods to moments in War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, as well as some unsubtle ones), but it can’t quite construct such transcendent moments of its own. The Last Station is a more earthbound thing, sturdy and decent and traditionally moving. Tolstoy’s life and his works were all of those things, but they were much, much more.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

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