The Last Station

By Matt Prigge
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Feb. 2, 2010

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As The Last Station suggests, if the last days of Leo Tolstoy were written exclusively by the “Tolstoyites,” his devoted acolytes, it would go something like this: Tolstoy was a great man tortured by his wife, Sonya, a vicious harpy who threw a materialistic hissy fit when he agreed to leave his vast riches to Russia’s impoverished. A bit reductionist, no?

Except that The Last Station—despite being based on a biographical novel (by Jay Parini) that shifts between several narrators, who often contradict each other - offers its exact opposite.

Here, Sonya (Helen Mirren) is a bit batty and difficult but ultimately devoted to her novelist and outspoken pacifist of a husband (Christopher Plummer), himself a randy old coot who just wants some peace and quiet. Meanwhile, prominent Tolstoyite and the man’s secretary, Vladimir Chertkov, is a cruel stock villain, played with frozen blood and intimidating facial hair by Paul Giamatti.

Our window into this socio-political/domestic barnstormer comes by way of audience surrogate Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), a budding Tolstoyite who gets to spend some one-on-one time with the great writer/philosopher. Eager for his Tolstoyan—that is, ascetic and sexless—life choice to be further encouraged, he instead gets regaled with old sex stories. As for those totemic proclamations he made in A Confession? Well, hey, he probably meant it when he wrote it, he blithely reports.

Glomming onto a random Tolstoy quote professing the importance of love, The Last Station seeks to knock its subject off a pedestal, but all it does is erect another one, replacing one bullshit myth with another. The ideal position would be to balance the two extremes allegedly held by Sonya and Chertkov, but writer-director Michael Hoffman (Restoration, Soapdish) treats the idea of donating to the poor with the horror of a Tea Party stooge recoiling at “government handouts.” Hoffman even writes Sonya into her husband’s death bed scene, which infamously and unglamorously occurred at a random train station just as he had ditched his family and home to live a life on the road.

Though annoying as revisionist history, The Last Station is actually delightful when it allows the actors to just hang. In the early stretches, Mirren and Plummer, who replaced Meryl Streep and Anthony Hopkins, boast a lived-in chemistry that softens the viewer before the film finally turns serious and questionable. C+

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1. Cris said... on Feb 3, 2010 at 05:41PM

“It's difficult to consider this a good review when you call the female protagonist "Sonya" instead of "Sofya".”

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2. Anonymous said... on Feb 5, 2010 at 01:11PM

“Tolstoy went to a train station after a famous argument with his wife as a very infirm, unwell man who was likely not entirely oriented. It could hardly be said that he was embarking on a "life on the road." Tolstoy knew well that the fame he acquired as a man of the people was just as much dependent upon the myth-making that the Russian aristocracy relied upon to maintain their traditions; the myth of the great man of the nobility was substituted for the great man of letters. His wife wanted him to keep writing, and thought his best work was ahead of him, but Tolstoy battled depression and ventured into fads and trends of the time to battle it. He would admit that he was as lost as anyone. It is probably true from what he wrote and said, that he took himself the least seriously of anyone, to a fault. Certainly the serfs who he labored to educate and know felt he was dear but completely daft, and likely to end up a danger to himself. The movie seems to capture all of it.”

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