The endless debate between art and artifice will, perhaps, never be amicably resolved. On the one hand you have tireless champions for the preservation of principle, skilled souls who would never give in to the senseless siren song of selling out - that is, if even given the chance to do so. On the other end are those who would literally give their dying grandmother away to have their images featured in a commercial spot or have their song used as the backdrop for some lame movie montage. Cash vs. creativity has been a long standing spat between such artisans, most famously in the life of Leo Tolstoy. In the beginning, he was a borderline populist, wanting his work to be experienced by as many people as possible. But as he aged, he began to embrace a kind of Christian anarchism that lead to a worldwide movement, and troubles at home. The situation is highlighted in Michael Hoffman's earnest melodrama The Last Station. Unfortunately, what it lacks in facts, it tries to make up for with over the top performance theatrics. In a few instances, it actually succeeds. At other times, it's as tired as it is tedious.
It's 1910. As the author of such famous books as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy is at the center of the literary world. At 82, he has inspired an entire movement based on his philosophies with hundreds of devotees around the world. As he inches closer to his final days, his trusted confidant Vladimir Chertkov wants the writer to donate all his copyrights to the people. He sees this as the ultimate confirmation of his beliefs. On the other hand, Tolstoy's wife Sophia demands that she be given the works in order to secure her and her family's financial future. Into the fray walks Valentin Bulgakov, a young devotee hired to play assistant, as well as spy on the couple. Chertkov hopes to get specific information to forward his cause. But Bulgakov soon discovers that there is more to the man, and his mission, than a bunch of ideological stepping stones and a cult-like collection of commandments.
Sometimes, great acting borders on the vaudevillian - that is, it can be so obvious and extreme that it threatens to wipe away everything else that's good about a film. Luckily, The Last Station is nothing more than a very intense, very introspective character study, a meditation on the difference between being famous and financially sound, principled or penniless. This is not a biopic of famed author Leo Tolstoy. In fact, we learn very little about the man and his previous life as a vital lord of letters. Instead, the narrative revolves almost exclusively around the last few months of his career, when the newly anointed revolution was infiltrating the author's philosophy. He wants to be a good example and give his work over to the people - all part of a utopian belief in a surreal set of situational and social ethics. On the other side is his long suffering and devoted wife, a woman of substance who can't believe her husband would die and leave her next to nothing as a means of survival. Into the fray comes to competing forces - Tolstoy disciple Vladimir Chertkov and new assistant Valentin Bulgakov. Together, the foursome will spend some quality time arguing, debating, deliberating, and analyzing. Does this mean The Last Station is overly talky? You bet. Does it mean it's also boring and belabored? Not always.
Mirren and Plummer are the main reasons we can tolerate such endless pontification. Well into his '80s, the man who many know from The Sound of Music is on a career high right now. Between this and his work in Terry Gilliam's equally engaging The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Plummer is tireless - and terrific. The recently crowned Dame of British actresses is also in top form, even if her character can occasionally come off as a semi-strident shrew. She is so angry and spiteful over her husband's intentions that she becomes an almost uncontrollable physical dervish. Indeed, the main problem with The Last Station is the central conceit - that a man who millions love around the world, an artist of great stature, significance, and success would intentionally corrupt his family's future under the questionable belief in some greater social good. Paul Giamatti, as the force behind such a senseless idea, comes across as mercenary in his approach, looking to gain something for himself in the whole "Tolstoy for the Public" movement. Again, it comes down to the core idea - if a work of art is all its craftsman "owns", why would he readily give it up for a noble motive seems to argue against the very idea of creativity? It makes little sense.
And then there is McAvoy as go-to audience identification Bulgakov. In truth, he's little more than a device, an attempt to pitch both sides of the situation against each other in a supposedly independent form. He also gets to have the hot romance that Tolstoy and his Missus are apparently too aged to experience - and this after being a confessed member of the man's then worldwide movement of celibacy and passive resistance. What we really crave is more of the personal history between the great one and his marital muse. She was instrumental in his rise to prominence, and yet we are left with little context except how scared she is about being broke. Writer/director Michael Hoffman, responsible for such divergent works as Soapdish and the misty update of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, is too reverent with the source, too sold on what Tolstoy, his faction, and his emotionally unhinged wife can do by themselves. So he offers little narrative drive, letting the pace in places linger longer than it really should. Somehow, this material should snap and crackle, stimulating both our heart and our head. Instead, The Last Station comes across as a well-meaning misfire, an overt attention getter that, once it's lassoed you, has little more to offer than some understanding excellent acting histrionics.
As per most current films converted over to the new format, The Last Station looks almost flawless. The 1080p 2.35:1 widescreen image is excellent, lush with verdant backdrops and period piece precision. The level of detail here is astonishing, as is the feeling of being out in the Russian countryside. Fleshtones are maintained well, the darks are vibrant without being overpowering, and the overall atmosphere is one of class and professional polish.
With much of the film taking place outdoors or in natural environs, you would expect the aural aspect of The Last Station to be problematic. Thanks to the Blu-ray treatment it is given here, you would be wrong. The soundtrack is sensational, presenting the dialogue in easy to follow flourishes. Similarly, the score by Sergei Yevtushenko has a real depth and scope. Technically, the DTS 5.1 HD Master Audio mix is not exactly reference quality, but it suits the music and the conversations well.
Perhaps the best piece of added content provided by the Blu-ray release is a full length audio commentary with the onscreen classical Bickersons - Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren. They are feisty, informative, and a lot of fun. Sadly, when their characters are not onscreen, their track is turned off, resulting in large, long gaps of silence. The second alternate narrative offers Hoffman walking us through the various production problems and narrative dilemmas of bringing Tolstoy's story to life. We then get a gag reel (yes, really), a selection of deleted scenes (non-essential), a tribute to Plummer from the American Film Institute, and a trailer. Not a bad selection of bonus features, but also suffering from some slightly underwhelming aspects as well.
The Last Station is such an obvious bit of Oscar bait that it probably could have caught it's limit at the annual Academy Awards angler's showcase. It does feature fine work from Plummer, aggressive pyrotechnics from Mirren, and some nice supporting turns by the rest of the cast. But the inherent issue for this film remains the arcane ideas used by Tolstoy to explain his decisions. While some of his philosophy would eventually be embraced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, a few facets are questionable at best. Still, those looking for a semi-solid drama with electrifying acting could do a lot worse. The Last Station earns an apathetic Recommended rating - meaning more or less view at your own risk. The legacy of Leo Tolstoy does venture beyond the voluminous tomes in his creative canon. This is one movie that should have broadened its scope to include more context. It might have helped sell the complex concepts within.
Want more Gibron Goodness?
Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here