Covering the last several months
of Leo Tolstoy's life, The Last Station reveals the struggle
over Tolstoy's literary estate and poses interesting questions about
the most legitimate heirs of one person's art. However, director
Michael Hoffman's script (adapted from Jay Parini's novel of the
same name) doesn't fully flesh out these issues, which are truly the
heart of the story. Good dialogue and strong performances make
up for a frustrating lack of narrative cohesion, but the film suffers
in hindsight for its odd handling of Tolstoy as a character.
It is 1910, and Leo Tolstoy
(Christopher Plummer), still a spirited force to be reckoned with, is
spending the twilight of his life at his country estate, Vasnaya Polyana.
Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) is a recent arrival there, hired as
Tolstoy's personal secretary by Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti)
- the author's trusted protégée and chosen literary executor.
Bulgakov finds Vasnaya Polyana a hotbed of familial/political intrigue,
most of it generated by tension between Chertkov and the Countess Sophia
Tolstaya (Helen Mirren). The countess is determined to retain
the copyright to her husband's works for the ongoing benefit of her
family. Chertkov, on the other hand, claims to be carrying out
Tolstoy's wishes with regard to a renunciation of Tolstoy's copyright,
placing the count's works forever in the hands of the Russian people.
This concept goes hand-in-glove with Tolstoy's disapproval of private
property and promotion of passive resistance against oppressive authority;
as the chief of the "Tolstoian" movement, Chertkov's mission is
to enact Tolstoy's espoused principles in a concrete way. The
struggle between Chertkov and Countess Sophia challenge the very foundation
of Tolstoy's relationship with his wife, just as young Bulgakov finds
burgeoning love with a woman (Kerry Condon) who lives at a nearby Tolstoian
The hub of this story is the
question of who Tolstoy's works "belong" to. Are they the
rightful inheritance of his long-suffering but loving wife and their
eight children (and untold grandchildren)? Or is Tolstoy's literary
corpus the spiritual inheritance of the Russian people, for whom he
harbored a lifelong reciprocal devotion? This question boils down
to one of Tolstoy's own intentions - what did he really believe
and what did he really intend? Strangely, The Last Station
avoids Tolstoy's own perspective. Instead the film focuses on
the machinations of Chertkov and the countess Tolstaya, allowing their
wishes to represent the opposing interests involved (i.e., familial
legacy versus public cultural legacy).
Still, Tolstoy, portrayed energetically
by Christopher Plummer, is allotted significant screen time in the film;
he is a major character with a lot of dialogue who interacts with and
makes a great impact on the other characters in the film. It is
odd, then, that we are not provided with a clear explication of the
man's own intentions and wishes. If Hoffman intended for Tolstoy
to serve merely as a catalyst for the debate over the copyright of his
works, then it would have been wiser for Tolstoy to have remained in
the shadows, a mysterious, intentionally-veiled character. Instead,
he is shown here in full-blooded conversation with all major and supporting
characters, all of which scrupulously avoid direct mention how he envisions
the disposition of his legacy. This results in a nagging disconnect
among the action on the screen, the dynamics between the other characters,
and Tolstoy's ultimate decision to give up his copyright.
These criticisms of the screenplay
aside, all of the performances are excellent. McAvoy brings a
wide-eyed combination of devotion and confusion to his portrayal of
Bulgakov; his maturation over the course of the film, both as a skeptical
observer and as a romantic lead, is measured and entirely credible.
Plummer, despite the vague position the screenplay put him in, evinces
a robust charm as Tolstoy. Giamatti is appropriately uptight and
snide as the sycophantic Chertkov. Standing out from these other
fine actors is Helen Mirren as Sophia; she valiantly out-performs the
script as the anxious, loving, frustrated countess, filled to the brim
with a competing mixture of desperate concern for her family's future
and an unshakeable love for her husband. It's a powerhouse of
a performance that Hoffman nonetheless curtails now and then through
choppy editorial choices.
The enhanced 2.35:1 transfer looks strong, but a little overly bright,
especially during the daytime exteriors. The blacks are solid.
There is minimal but noticeable video noise. The brightness is
the main issue here, as it can make things look washed out in a way
that I doubt was intentional. A decent transfer, slightly marred.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is able but hardly a knockout,
which is to be expected for an historical drama that is mostly dialogue-driven.
Everything is clear and evenly-balanced. Ambience is minimal,
but the music by Sergei Yevtushenko is lovely and comes across well.
Several good bonus features shed light on the production.
There are two commentary tracks, the first of which features
leads Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren. Just having these
two legends on the same track (and recorded together in discussion)
is a noteworthy event, and these two not only enjoy each other's company
immensely, but are very funny, and have much of interest to contribute.
This track may be more entertaining than the film itself, and is well
worth listening to - even though there are significant gaps of silence.
The second track features writer-director Michael Hoffman; it is more
technical and production-oriented than the first. The Missed
Station (7:49) is a pretty amusing gag reel. A group of
Deleted Scenes (12:49) follow, most of which come from the film's
final act. A Tribute to Christopher Plummer (18:43) comes
from a 2009 AFI celebration of the actor's career; here Plummer participates
in a discussion before a live audience. The feature's Theatrical
Trailer wraps things up.
The Last Station has
a lot going for it: an outstanding cast and committed performances;
an unusual subject; good photography and appealing production values.
But it sorely lacks a major component of the central story: Tolstoy's
point of view. This strange vacancy suppresses the film's emotional
impact. The film is well worth seeing for the performances, and
the DVD's commentary track with Mirren and Plummer is a must-listen.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.