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August 2010

The Last Station

cast: Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti, and Kerry Condon

director: Michael Hoffman

107 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Optimum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
review by Jim Steel

The Last Station

2010 is the centenary of Tolstoy's death which, ironically, took place around a century after the events in War And Peace. He had written the novel decades before this, of course, and by the time of the events in the film the 82-year-old writer had stopped producing fiction a long time ago and had moved on to polemic. He was, in his later years, the head of a potent utopian cult that espoused communism, universal love, vegetarianism, and passive resistance.

He also happened to be the most famous writer in the world and this, coupled with the start of the media age, made him a very public figure. The railways (of course), the telegraph, cinema and photography all combine to give the story a very contemporary (albeit primitive) feel. Having said all of that, the stated theme of the film is love. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

The basic plot should be familiar but if it is not then it is fair to say that The Last Station is probably not for you. Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer looking uncannily like Michael Gambon) is being torn between the Tolstoyian movement and his wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren). The administrative head of the movement, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), wants Tolstoy to gift his not inconsiderable copyright to the movement and Sofya naturally wants him to leave it to her and the family. Tolstoy, who is affecting the dress of a peasant while living on his huge estate, is torn between the two.

Eventually he signs the copyright over to the movement and flees south on a train. Being an old man, however, this proves to be the end of him, and his family and followers, in what must be the slowest chase in cinema history, meet up in Ataspovo Station during his final hours. The film, as much as it is generally factually accurate, is based not history but on Jay Parini's 1989 novel of the same name. Parini's novel was based on the diaries of Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), a young man in the movement who became Tolstoy's secretary in the final year. Parini (also utilising other diaries) told the story from multiple viewpoints but Hoffman wisely makes the decision to return the story to that of Bulgakov which enables the viewer to join Tolstoy at the same time.

Bulgakov hero-worships Tolstoy (although he is hardly alone in this) and he comes into the situation as a naive young man with a convert's zeal. For the Tolstoyians, love is a platonic ideal and Bulagkov, a virgin, attempts to follow the creed. He soon, however, becomes involved with another follower, the worldly Masha (Kerry Condon). Both of the Tolstoys also take a shine to him, which places him in an awkward position as Chertkov has ask him to keep an eye on Sofya. Bulagkov is paralysed as he can now see both sides in a situation that would no doubt have annoyed the real-life Tolstoy, hating Hamlet as he did.

It is the interplay between the characters that holds the viewer and, in particular, the relationship between Leo and Sofya who love each other deeply and openly but have moved apart in the decades of the marriage. Sycophants such as his doctor (John Sessions) expressly compare Tolstoy to Christ, which is bound to affect any man, while Sofya is someone who is what may be termed as high maintenance. Both, it is fair to say, have their flaws but no one in this film is a villain.

The relationship between Bulagkov and Masha continues to evolve during the film, partially as a result of Bulagkov discovering the difference between the ideal and the man after he comes into contact with Tolstoy in person and also partially as a result of Sofya's encouragement, but it takes a more conventional narrative arc and feels at times like a sop to the casual viewer.

The acting throughout the film, it must be said, is uniformly magnificent, a statement that extends to supporting cast such as Anne-Marie Duff, here playing Tolstoy's loyal and devoted daughter. The birch forests of Germany also make for a convincing Russia and the only false note here comes from some peculiar wooden railway devices that appear to have been erected to disguise modern fixtures.

This DVD release comes with three extras. In addition to the trailer there are two lengthy sets of interviews; a 38-minute interview with Hoffman, and a 44-minute interview with the cast and crew. They are all intelligent people with much of interest to say, and it does appear to have been a happy work environment, but both features follow the usual tendency towards hagiography that these sorts of documentaries are guilty of.

An earlier proposal that Anthony Quinn tried to put together is briefly touched on but there is no mention of the sheer lunacy that Parini went through while trying to put a script together with Quinn. Quinn, a bit of a method man, even punched Parini to the floor on one occasion. But extras are just that: you can take them or leave them, and this film easily stands on its own feet.

One nice touch is the use of archive footage of Tolstoy over the end credits, which brings to a close the feeling that the characters have been dancing unaware in the ruins. All along we have been aware that within a couple of years the whole Russian system would come crashing down around them and render their dreams and fears irrelevant.

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