on February 20, 2010
The film "The Last Station" focuses on the last few months of the novelist and writer Leo Tolstoy's family and social life. It stars Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy, Helen Mirren as his wife Sophya, James McAvoy as Tolstoy's new personal secretary Valentin, Kerry Condon as Valentin's charming and aggressive love interest, and Paul Giamatti as the leader of a group of "Tolstoyans" who wish to widely promote Tolstoy's ideals.
The film is set in early 20th century Russia, before the harsh realities of the Russian Revolution occurred in 1917 and thereafter (Tolstoy died in 1910). It was a time in history when Socialism was still an untried idealized conceptual form of government, and Tolstoy in his final years became more "radical" in his political, religious, and social philosophies.
The film raises 2 universal questions: 1) What do you do when the love of your life is in conflict with your highest priority ideals? And how does your treatment or mistreatment of the people closest to you, who have loved and cared for you the most, reflect on the quality of your ideals?
~Spoilers Ahead ~
In the final months of Tolstoy's life, he abandoned his wife of 48 years, Sophya. Before Sophya and Leo married, Sophya knew of his many sexual escapades he shared with her in his diaries. She knew he had fathered a child with one of the servant girls in his household. Nevertheless, she loved him and married him, giving him 13 children, 5 of whom died in childhood. The movie implies the question: At what point does your life become more than a solitary pursuit? After how many years of good treatment and co-dependence with those close to you does your life necessarily and deservedly become considerate of more than just your own priorities? Where should your deference be?
In 2009, it was widely reported that a British couple, both 98 years old, divorced. When a friend of mine heard of the story, she said, "What was the point?" It's a fascinating question. When do we ever stop wanting to define ourselves, our relationships, and our boundaries?
James McAvoy's character Valentin is a young, romantic idealist who wishes to promote Tolstoy's ideals. He runs into a young woman named Masha, who is less interested in layers of idealism, moral laws, and controls, and is more interested in physical and emotional feelings and connections. She quickly disarms his protests by being sexually aggressive with him. His ideals lose some of their zeal and absolutism when confronted with Masha's ability to naturally please him.
The film parallels Valentin's young love story with Tolstoy's love story with Sophya. Valentin is given a rare view, at a young age, to watch "ideals" clash with "love." Valentin, living in the house with Tolstoy, is able to watch a "great man" who is leading a "revolutionary" movement. He's able to watch how Tolstoy's focus on "the greater good" appears to harm and betray his wife, whose ideals are in conflict with his.
The film implies that Sophya did more than cleaning house and raising children while Tolstoy wrote. She tempered his novels' dialogues and added exceptional advice to his female portrayals. She transcribed and edited his major novels. She was not simply his wife, she was a co-creator of his greatest artworks.
The film is based on a 1990 novel "The Last Station" by Jay Parini. The title refers to many things, including the fact that Tolstoy died at a train station, fleeing his wife and estate. The title also implies the question: How will your actions in the last station of your life define your legacy? What will your last station leave behind for your immediate social circle and your community in general?
The screenplay is tight, moving, and never circuitous. The direction is solid and never distracting. The actors are excellent. I've heard the most praise for Mirren and McAvoy, but I found Plummer's and Condon's performances to be equally excellent. Plummer is in top form, less affected than in his younger roles. The film is a perfect length and the roles are not drawn as too overwrought or too "good" vs. "evil." We see the conflicting ideals of each of the main characters and we can easily understand the warfare that develops when their strong boundaries don't wish to co-exist.
I was hesitant to give this film a "number of stars" rating. But I appreciate it when other reviewers place some measurable rating on the films they review. When trying to come up with a correct number, I asked myself: "What was wrong with this film?" And I couldn't think of anything.
It's difficult for viewers to leave this film feeling good. This is not a film with a "feel good" ending. It's a real story about complex people who in the end desperately didn't want the same things. There are no clear winners in the final act of Tolstoy's life's story. But over time, I'm glad the work of his whole life has shined brighter and more prominently than his final chapter.
"The Last Station"--oh, what a great movie experience. It has superb acting, a fascinating story, stunning cinematography, and the evocation of a period in history. Leo Tolstoy, Russia's greatest novelist, espoused many ideas and spiritual principles in his later life which formed the Tolstoyan movement. Christopher Plummer is magnificent as Tolstoy in his last days, and Helen Mirren, is, as usual, truly memorable. A battle is going on in the film between Mirren as the Countess wife of Tolstoy versus Paul Giametti, at his nastiest, playing the head of the Tolstoyan movement. He wants the copyrights to the master's works to go to the Russian people, while she wants the rights to go to her and the family.
She hectors her husband not to give in to Giamatti and deny the family the income from his work. It's a titanic struggle among Plummer, Mirren, and Giamatti that forms the basis for the story. The Tolstoys have been married for forty-three years and have had a number of children. Even though Tolstoy dressed in peasant garb, they still lived a privileged life with many servants.
Giamatti gets a Tolstoy disciple, played with great skill and artistry by actor James McAvoy to become Tolstoy's secretary and spy on the wife. Celibacy is one of the guiding principles of the movement, but on the commune he quickly falls for a young woman and forgoes his vow. Mirren walks a thin line, avoiding shrewishness in her battle, and showing her true love for her husband. Their love scenes together show true chemistry. The rooster and hen scene is great fun.
One of the outstanding features of the movie is the way it photographically recreates life in the first decade of the twentieth century on a Russian country estate and the life and work of the many peasants who endured lives of quiet desperation in Czarist Russia. In every outdoor scene you see the serfs toiling in large numbers.
It's a love story in which a woman's struggles for family equity get entangled with the fanaticism of an ideology. The movie's title will become apparent at the end. It's an antidote to all of the action movies and drivel out there. What shines through in all the characters is their deep humanity and their depths of emotion. It's a superior film, very satisfying and enriching.
on February 24, 2010
If you've read War and Peace and Anna Karenina or any other works by Tolstoy, the idea of a film about the great Russian author's fascinating latter years as he disavowed his earlier writings for deep religious principles and social reform is an intriguing prospect, but I'm sure there can't be too many others similarly thrilled by the notion.
It is a strange subject to make a film around, there's no denying that, and indeed The Last Station - based around the struggle over the publishing rights of his entire works between Tolstoy's favourite disciple Chertkov (who wants them to be given freely to the people) and the Countess Sofya (who believes they belong to the family and herself who have supported the Count over the years) - isn't the most dramatically thrilling of situations. To add variety to the constant back and forth battles, showdowns and shouting matches between Chertkov and the Countess over the terms of Tolstoy's will, there is a conventional romance thrown in between naïve new disciple Bulgakov and the rather more worldly Masha on Tolstoy's commune.
Despite the fact that nearly all the situations take place around him between the other protagonists, Tolstoy however rightly retains the strongest position in the film, a fact that can be attributed almost entirely to a convincing performance by Christopher Plummer. While performances are equally as good elsewhere from Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti and John Sessions (particularly Mirren), it's hard not to see them as indeed "performances" by well-known and respected actors, whereas Plummer completely inhabits his role and convinces as Tolstoy, putting real character behind the man's revolutionary ascetic, pacifistic ideals. While it never really explores these beliefs and sentiments in any great detail (go read Tolstoy's later works if you are interested, they are worthwhile and, ironically, out of copyright in English translation they can now all be downloaded for free from Gutenberg), it does go some way towards making The Last Station a little more meaningful and enjoyable as a film.
on February 22, 2010
"War & Peace" and "Anna Karenina" are two of the longest and most famous novels in Russian literature (as of this writing, I'm about 800 pages into the first; only 400 to go), produced by author Count Leo Tolstoy ("Lev", literally, transliterated into English as Leo). In the 21st century, they're really the only things that most people are familiar with about him, but, apart from a raft of other (much shorter) fiction, Tolstoy, in the later decades of his, became a central figure in the global pacifist movement, a Christian anarchist philosopher par excellence who corresponded with a young Gandhi, and who was cited as the most influential pacifist in the world by American feminist Jane Addams in 1902. His death was news worldwide. "The Last Station", based on a novel of the same name by Jay Parini, depicts his final months, and the conflict between his wife and his acolytes over his literary legacy. Directed by Michael Hoffman, "The Last Station" is a quality period drama that should interest fans of the genre. Spoilers are discussed below.
The novel was written in an epistolary format, with a number of different narrators on a chapter-by-chapter basis: Tolstoy himself, his wife Countess Sofya Tolstoya, his daughter Sasha Tolstoya, his doctor Dushan Makovitsky, his ally Vladimir Chertkov, and his private secretary Valentin Bulgakov. The film telescopes things considerably, with the Tolstoys and Bulgakov the primary focus; the others are present, but as supporting characters. Bulgakov (James McAvoy; as in "The Last King of Scotland", playing the viewpoint character to other actors who earn the Oscar nominations; poor guy) is selected by Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) as the new secretary, as well as Chertkov's man in the Tolstoy residence, since he needs to keep an eye on the Countess. At stake is Tolstoy's copyrights, which his wife wants to pass to his heirs to sustain the family (they've a standing offer a million rubles for the whole set, which is nothing to turn down lightly), while Chertkov wants the whole body of work to enter the public domain, as a gift to the people of Russia (and the world). The Countess (Helen Mirren, who earned her fourth Oscar nomination for her dynamite work here) is very materially-minded, unlike Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer, who was finally delivered from the ranks of great actors passed for Oscar nominations with his role), who lives in a state of deepening spiritual conflict over the lavish lifestyle his wife desires.
The conflict between intellectual ideas and practice is at the heart of the film. Tolstoy himself admits that he is, in a lot of ways, not a very good Tolstoyan, mainly when it comes to his ideas about the value of chastity (having thirteen children, and quite a few past lovers). Bulgakov, young and idealistic, finds himself increasingly involved with Masha (Kerry Condon), a spirited woman at the Tolstoyan commune; and, in his capacity as secretary, he's at the centre of the tug-of-war between Sofya and Chertkov. Bulgakov finds himself increasingly drawn to the side of Sofya, who sees Tolstoy's work as the work of her life as well; anyone can sympathize with somoene who copied out "War & Peace" in longhand six times. Mirren invests her with quite a bit of relatability, as well showing her a truly spectacular drama queen (much more of one than any of the four real queens Mirren has played). She's well-matched with Plummer; their scenes together are the highlights of the film. McAvoy does what his role requires, and he and Condon make a believable couple, even if their more low-key characters are always in the Tolstoys' shadow. Also present is McAvoy's real-life wife Anne-Marie Duff (amusingly not playing his love interest, but Tolstoy's daughter Sasha). Giamatti and John Sessions (as the family doctor) provide able support.
The film is more direct than the novel in taking sides in the battle between Sofya and Chertkov, pronouncedly sympathizing with her, which is, I think, a somewhat indulgent view in many ways. It's quite true she invested a lot of her life in the work, but the film deals only glancingly with the social justice concerns at the heart of the Tolstoyan movement. The reality of Russia in 1910 was a population of tens of millions living in abject poverty and illiteracy (one of my favourite parts of the novel, not included here, was Tolstoy's speculation about what those millions could possibly think of a novelist, not being able to read, nor really having the time for such things), under the sway of a despotic Tsar, a corrupt government, and an indifferent ruling class, a class that Countess Tolstoya belonged to. The core dispute between Sofya and Chertkov was that Chertkov cared quite a bit about the plight of those millions, and Sofya not at all; Chertkov's great sin was being more interested in the world's grotesque social problems than keeping the Tolstoy family in their enormous mansion. Sympathetic as she might be at times, a bit more perspective might be advised there.
on January 14, 2013
What a beautiful, appealing film is the Last Station. Even if it takes placed during th final months of the celebrated author Leo Tolstoy's life, it is really about life and its complexities and choices and options. The scenes of the Russian countryside are beautiful and certainly explain why Tolstoy would opt for the pure country life in his later years. The acting is perfect with Helen Mirren and James McAvoy delivering wonderful performances. The film is about complexity also. Life offers complexity and this film does a superb job of revealing the conflicting nature of our desires and personal philosophy. Leo Tolstoy, played beautifully by Christopher Plummer, is torn between his love and loyalty to his large family and to the Russian peasants and the rest of downtrodden humanity. His wife, Countess Sophya Tolstoy, played by Mirren, wishes for the royalties of his many novels to remain as part of the family estate, providing her, her children, her grandchildren with income for generations to come. Yet Tolstoy's personal philosophy has become a new emerging ideology and the primary disciple and mover of the movement wishes that Tolstoy would make all his works available free of copy right to anyone who wishes to publish and distribute his work. The screenwriters displayed perfect balance between Helen Mirren as the Countess, concerned with the security of herself and family and that of Paul Giamatti who is standardizing and canonizing Tolstoy's philosophy for the good of mankind. Is the Countess greedy? Yes, but so is everyone to some extent. It is a normal human emotion and it is not until the Countess becomes extremely histrionic that Count Leo Tolstoy becomes weary of her manipulation. Giamatti plays a more controlled and careful character, trying to make the works of the great writer as accessible and affordable as possible, yet in the name of loving and helping mankind, he cuts corners and hurts. This is not a simple issue for we have seen the results of ideology gone wrong in the lives and careers of Robespierre, Pol Pot, Jim Jones, Stalin, and others. The zealot who will hurt other humans for a higher good is a theme of great importance for ideologies that are meant to spread love often spread pain, hatred, and intolerance. Tolstoy is torn between them personally and intellectually and the film displays his struggle to reconcile these warring camps. The screen writers inserted the naïve, thoughtful, observer in the character of Tolstoy's new secretary, played by James McAvoy. Tolstoy insists that all world religion is based on the common concept and experience of human love. McAvoy begins to experience that love and it opens him up to the struggle that Count Tolstoy undergoes in the power struggle between his wife and his disciples. Valentin, the secretary, is amazed that Tolstoy wishes to know all about him and to hear his life experiences. He is amazed that a great man wishes to hear the experiences and thoughts of a young man rather than relate his own illustrious career and philosophy. I love this concept in the film for great men are open to experiences of others, to their views, their pain and belief, for it fuels the mind and soul of a great man to hear these things. Tolstoy is the great man who wishes not to impress you with his philosophy but to open you to your own personal philosophy. The virgin Valentin is opened to a world of emotion, experience, and love when he meets a fellow pilgrim, Masha, played by the subtle beauty, Kerry Condon. Valentin is placed in a similar situation to Tolstoy, do we side with those whom we love or do we side with those comrades who join us in philosophy and ideology for the better good? Valentin calls Masha to him whereas Tolstoy must separate himself from hysteria to gain peace of mind in his final days.
The film is a beautiful life affirming experience and is highly recommended. I left the film feeling elated for there are no easy solutions, there are no uncomplicated relationships, there are no decisions that don't have unforeseen consequences; yet the human heart is a guide - a blind, innocent, easily fooled guide, but a guide none the less.
on October 7, 2010
THE LAST STATION
STARRING: Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Christopher Plummer, Kerry Condon, Paul Giamatti, Anne-Marie Duff, John Sessions and Patrick Kennedy
WRITTEN BY: Michael Hoffman; based on the novel by Jay Parini
DIRECTED BY: Michael Hoffman
Release Date: 04 December 2009
I love and adore Sandra Bullock and am happy for her that she received an Oscar. But if you ask me, it belonged to Helen Mirren for her performance in The Last Station. I was blown away. She was so natural, so sensational, and so terrific; as was the film as a whole, but we'll get to that shortly.
Mirren plays Sofya Tolstoy; the wife of legendary Russian author Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer). At times they seem like the perfect couple, but soon we realize that their long lasting relationship is plagued with problems and mistrust.
Leo has gained such notoriety for his fame in writing, that his wife fears others will take advantage of him for his wealth, and that if he should pass, she will be left with nothing. This fear is birthed primarily by a snooty little man by the name of Vladimir, played nicely by Paul Giamatti. Vladimir wants Leo to sign something that would handover creative control to some of his most astounding works.
James McAvoy also gives a radiant performance as Valentin; a promising young man plagued by his youthful insecurities so much that he has found himself to be a man, and yet still a virgin. He is hired on to assist Leo, and the two generate a rather wholesome friendship; Valenitn no doubt reminding Leo of himself as a youngster.
Valentin's friendship with Leo grows and thus causes him to be concerned for not only the old poet's health, but for what is to happen to his name, his wealth, his work, and his estate, should he leave this earth.
I loved to romance that thrived between Leo and Sofya; it was believable and filled with gloriously fun moments that were shadowed perfectly with ugly, dark ones. These actors are two truly gifted spirits indeed, and they did this film a supreme justice.
In addition to the Tolstoy romance, there is a younger one as well. A beautiful worker on Leo's estate named Sasha (Kerry Condon) is keen to Valentin's unique awkwardness and blinding charm. She smells it as easily as blood in the water to a shark; virgin! She's older, more experienced, and all the wiser, and she feeds on his innocence. Both deliver great perfect performances and they share a very intimate moment that was one of the steamiest of 2009.
The film is based on the real life of Leo Tolstoy, but it often feels like a play. Nearly the entire thing takes place in one central location (you can relax, it's very large and elegant; not the least bit boring) and these characters go through such small scales of playwright drama; but it's the way they handle them that turns them into massive cinematic treasures, and its divinely entertaining.
Somehow, I haven't the slightest clue how, but somehow, this film did not find itself nominated for best picture at the Oscars, which is astounding; especially considering there were a whopping 10 freaking nominees! It surely should have been nominated - at the very least, and I can think of more than one film that was nominated, the spot of which this gem could have rightfully plucked for itself.
on February 14, 2012
This movie is about the last days of Leo Tolstoy as his aide Chertkov conspires to get his (Tolstoy's) will changed to leave the copyright to his books to the people of Russia rather than to his family. Tolstoy's wife Sophia is working just as hard to prevent that. The new secretary Valentin is on everybody's side and tries to negotiate a compromise at every turn, while falling in love with a young woman on Tolstoy's compound. The love story between Leo and his wife is very real and touching. I fell in love with Leo Tolstoy (as Levin)myself when I read Anna Karenin, and this movie, historically accurate or not, portrays him as a very lovable man. To me, a movie is good if I get so involved in the story that I forget I'm watching a movie; that happened to me with this one. The acting is remarkable, the production and directing is perfect. This is a great movie that left me in tears. It's worth watching a second time.
on February 28, 2010
There are few, very few films, that warrant the word perfect.
But "The Last Station" certainly falls into that rare category.
Visually stunning with a wonderful attention to detail, it tells simple but moving story with great pose and warmth, and travels beautifully from the light heart moments of the early exchanges between the cast to an achingly sad yet complete ending. The closing scene as the train carrying the coffin leaves the little station with a poised Countess Tolstoy starring out of the window with an air of contentment, knowing she is taking her husband home, will live with you long after you leave the cinema.
And then there are performances, worthy not only of Oscar nominations but Oscar trophies, from Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer while James McEvoy as the innocent at large is wonderful.
Don't wait for the DVD release; give yourself a treat and see "The Last Station" on the big screen.
Admittedly, I was a bit bored with this movie up to about the 30 minute mark. Here was the story of Leo Tolstoy's last year and I thought it was going to play out in real time! Alas, the actors kick into gear and save a dull screenplay. I was also interested in learning a bit more about Tolstoy than what I already knew (not much). Evidently he was considered a near saint, based on what the Russian people thought. The film is buoyed by some great actors of our day. Christopher Plummer is a standout as Tolstoy and deserved his Oscar nom. Helen Mirren is great as usual as Tolstoy's wife Sofya, with whom he has some remarkable battles. The supporting cast is terrific as well, especially James McAvoy as the writers assistant and Paul Giamatti as the leader of the Tolstoyian movement and threat to Sofya's attempt to maintain her husband's estate. In the end the movie works as I was very impressed with the Russian landscape of 1910 and of the thespians who deliver the goods.
The Last Station's scrumptious 1080p Blu-ray transfer accentuates the film's lavish cinematography. Colors are the transfer's most impressive element; the many outdoor scenes about the Russian countryside dazzle with an array of natural hues that bring the environment to life. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is equally impressive delivering perfect ambiant sound from the many outdoor scenes as well as an extended scene involving a train.
I finally got around to watching `The Last Station' this past weekend, and I must say that it wasn't quite what I was hoping for. It excelled in some key areas (the performances are all uniformly good and the film is undeniably `beautiful' to look at) but it failed to captivate me the way I wanted it to, and the film's construction is a bit generic, clichéd and dull.
`The Last Station' relays the end of Tolstoy's life, complete with internal drama that flooded his home thanks to the butting-of-heads between his vivacious wife Sofya and his overly-loyal aid, Chertkov. Tolstoy has developed an antimaterialist movement that threatens the wellbeing of his family after his eventual demise, and his wife is desperate to save their fortunes. Despite living in wealth, Tolstoy despises it and Chertkov manipulates that for his own ideals. Entering the battlezone is a young secretary named Valentin. Valentin is trying his hardest to live a life according to Tolstoy's values (including abstinence), but he never imagined the difficulties his own conscience would play on his ability to uphold his beliefs, especially when he begins to sympathize with Sofya and her plight.
My main issue with the film is that fact that it doesn't have any pep in its step. Outside of a steamy sex scene between James McAvoy and Kerry Condon, the film doesn't have much spice. It tries to be comedic in scenes, but it doesn't always pull that off and so this biopic, which struggles to be both a drama and a comedy, becomes rather unfocused and uninteresting. As the film enters its second act it starts to lag a bit and eventually a film that is under two-hours feels like it is stretching out over three. I also found the script to be a tad predictable and underdeveloped. Take for instance Valentin's values. He is a devout Tolstoyan, and yet almost immediately after settling in at the estate he makes love to Condon's character. He doesn't even really put up a fight. His character loses a lot of individuality because he becomes an unreliable moral centerpiece. The film also feels too mechanical in parts, like it is trying too hard to be `exact' even in the moments that feel less than reliable. It loses that `lived in' feel because of it.
But, the acting is a triumph if not a tad stagy. I enjoyed nearly everyone (I'm a firm advocate for Paul Giamatti, but he did nothing here but the usual cliché), especially the supporting women; Kerry Condon and Anne-Marie Duff. James McAvoy needs to carry a better film soon. He has such talent, and he's been showcasing it in prestige films like this one (as well as the glorious `Atonement' and `The Last King of Scotland') but he still seems to be flying under the radar. He gives a beautifully channeled performance, despite limitations within the script, and he actually ends up outshining the bigger stars here. Helen Mirren chews scenery like no one else in this film, and she does it well. She always feels authentic, even when her actions are pure bait. Christopher Plummer is soft and centered and very `Tolstoy', which also makes him rather secondary to the actorly theatrics going on around him. Still, he understood the character very well.
I just wish that the director understood the material, or at least how to present it. The film is far from bad, but it is also far from great. It just panders on `fine', never elevating into something I'd want to watch again.