Movie review by Greg Carlson
Michael Hoffman, whose odd filmography as director includes “Some Girls,” “Soapdish,” and “One Fine Day,” stages the final phase of literary giant Leo Tolstoy’s life and career in “The Last Station,” an uneven tale that never decides whether it wants to be an earnest meditation on the life of the mind or a marital melodrama dependent on the theatrical pyrotechnics of its principal couple. Veering capriciously between the madcap and the sober, the adaptation of Jay Parini’s biographical novel filters a power struggle between Tolstoy’s wife Sofya (Helen Mirren) and longtime confidante Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) through the eyes of neophyte secretary Valentin (James McAvoy), a young man who must learn the rules of the Tolstoy household quickly.
The actors in the film, especially Mirren, Giamatti, and Christopher Plummer, who plays an emotionally explosive Tolstoy, emote to the rafters, and one’s enjoyment of the movie will depend somewhat on a tolerance for breast-beating and eye-rolling (not to mention mustache-twirling, which Giamatti employs literally as a running gag). Even McAvoy boards the tic train, bestowing Valentin with the habit of sneezing when nervous, an affectation that wears out its welcome after the third or fourth tiresome instance. The actors throw themselves into their roles with lust but no caution. In one scene, Tolstoy crows like a rooster before bedding Sofya, and the campy cock-a-doodle-doo echoes through much of the movie.
Valentin, who is thrilled to learn he will attend personally to Tolstoy at the sage’s bustling estate, joins other “Tolstoyans” at a nearby commune, where he falls under the spell of the free-thinking Masha (Kerry Condon), a fetching lodger unwilling to conform to the program’s prohibition on sexual intercourse. A relationship develops under the scornful watch of Chertkov’s austere underlings, who frown fiercely whenever Valentin and Masha are together. Predictably, Valentin will soon be forced to choose between Tolstoy and Masha, and the romantic subplot is placed on hold until a final-reel reunion ties things up with a ribbon.
“The Last Station” never fully investigates the philosophical underpinnings of Tolstoy’s political and spiritual “movement,” and the movie suffers as a result. We are told that love is the answer to everything, but the actions of the scheming characters mostly suggest otherwise. At one point, Tolstoy ends an argument with Sofya by admitting his disgust at their material comfort, and for a second, one can see a finer, more intelligent movie lurking underneath the surface. Both Sofya and Chertkov fight like heavyweight champions for Tolstoy’s heart and the copyrights to his published works, and the movie would have been much more satisfying had we been allowed to see more shades of gray in the longtime rivals.
“The Last Station” also squanders a prime opportunity to explore the pitfalls and demands of celebrity. Tolstoy and his followers are constantly being photographed and filmed, but Hoffman elects not to investigate the intersection between the man/father/husband and the literary deity. The final section of the movie, in which a grave and rapidly declining Tolstoy takes to his deathbed in the location of the title, builds to the inevitable final showdown between Sofya and Chertkov, unfortunately positioning the delirious and wheezing Tolstoy as a pawn rather than a king.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/1/10.