Thursday, January 14, 2010

In Theaters: "The Last Station"

In theory, The Last Station is a completely unobjectionable, and in fact admirable film—it deals with an important figure in an intelligent way, it’s well-shot and competently assembled, it features several fine actors in showcase roles. But in spite of the fact that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, I can’t get all that worked up about it either. It’s all so high-minded and austere that you feel like something of a heathen for complaining that it’s all rather dull and lifeless, but that’s how it is, so there you have it.

The time is 1910; it is the era of Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), whose books have made him famous and whose socio-political message has made him an icon. Valentin Bulgakov (a typically bland James McAvoy) has just been hired as the aging author’s personal secretary; an avowed Tolstoyan, he’s thrilled for the opportunity, but finds himself drawn into a fierce struggle for Tolstoy’s soul (and his considerable fortune). On one side is Vladimir Chertov (Paul Giamatti), Tolstoy’s publisher and advisor, who pushes the writer to live closer to the dogma he has given birth to, and to revise his will to leave his fortune to the Russian people. On the other is Tolstoy’s wife and muse, Countess Sofya Tolstoy (Helen Mirren), who longs only for his attention and affection—and for him to leave his money to her and their many children.

“Remember what I said,” Chertov advises Valentin, as he sends him off to the Trotsky estate. “Write. Everything. Down.” He already has one advisor doing the same; before long, the Countess is imploring Valentin to transcribe Tolstoy’s communications with Chertov for her. (All of this spying and diary-keeping leads to one moment of unfortunately muddy storytelling: late in the film, when Sofya discovers a devastating diary and reacts accordingly, we’re not sure exactly whose diary she’s found, since there are so many floating around.) Both parties end up using the naïve young man as their pawn, while his ideals melt away in the struggle.

Mirren’s is the performance most worth watching—she’s fierce and fiery, and amusingly cynical (when Valentin tells her that he admires her husband, she responds dryly, “Oh, he likes that”). The story (adapted by Michael Hoffman, from Jay Parini’s novel) is at its best when focused on the dynamics of the complicated relationship between her and Tolstoy, who is played by Christopher Plummer with considerable gravitas. Decked out in a long, thick beard and imbued with warmth and a wink, his Tolstoy is both elegant and earthy (it’s a performance somehow both reminiscent of and completely different from his solid work in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus).

Director Michael Hoffman’s filmography ranges from the period revelry of Restoration and the 1999 adaptation of Midsummer Night’s Dream to the enjoyably vanilla hijinks of Soapdish and One Fine Day, and you see him straining to push past the pleasingly pastoral pictures and dig some heat out of the tale. He makes a valiant effort with the subplot involving Valentin’s romance with Masha (Kerry Condon), a fellow Tolstoyan who is not fully invested in the rules of the movement. Their scenes are sweet, and Hoffman diligently draws effective connections between their blooming romance and the Tolstoys’ fading one.

But in spite of its attempts at intrigue and esprit, The Last Station is ultimately rather a dry affair—well-crafted, but somewhat cold and bloodless. It looks just right, and it is (for the most part) marvelously performed, but it’s a museum piece; as much as we might admire and appreciate it, there’s not much in it to draw the viewer in.

"The Last Station" opens Friday, January 15th in limited release.

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