The Last Station

The Last Station

***

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Focusing on the last year of War And Peace novelist Leo Tolstoy's life - and, in particular, the strains put on his marriage - this lavish costume drama is a frustrating affair. But before we get on to the niggling - of which there will be quite a lot - it's important to say that half of the time this is a very good film. Christopher Plummer is nothing short of fabulous in the role of Tolstoy and perfectly paired with Helen Mirren, as his long-suffering wife Sofya. The film is at its best when the two of them share scenes and it is unsurprising that both have picked up a slew of award nominations.

We meet the writer at the same time as a young convert to his Tolstoyan movement. Valentyn Bulgakov is filled with the awestruck fervour of the 'born again', viewing a meeting with the great man as a Sermon On The Mount style experience - fitting perhaps, since Tolstoyan philosophy stems particularly from that and the other teachings of Christ, with an emphasis on giving up worldly goods. Employed as Tolstoy's private secretary by the author's close friend, activist Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti in such pantomime villain mode that he even gets to twirl his moustache), Valentyn is instructed by Chertkov to, in essence, spy on Sofya, since she is proving a fly in the ointment of Tolstoy's last will and testament plans.

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The crux of the matter is that Tolstoy is being encouraged by Vladimir to leave the rights to his books to the Russian people. But Sofya - whom you feel has something of a point having been married to him for 50 years, borne him 13 kids and copied War And Peace out by hand six times - is adamant he should bequeath the rights to his family. Valentyn, of course, finds that the whole issue of right and wrong is a lot less cut and dried than it might first appear.

This push-me-pull-you exploration of a marriage - and, ultimately, a life - in disintegration is where the meat of writer/director Michael Hoffman's screenplay lies. It's just a shame that he also feels the need to include the sort of syrupy romance plotline for Valentyn that would not be out of place in a Catherine Cookson TV drama. The story of Tolstoy and Sofya is so compelling that it feels cheapened by a cut-price compare and contrast with Valentyn's blush of first love with Masha (Kerry Condon). You'll notice Masha has no surname which, along with the fact that there is no mention of what became of her in the end credits, leads one to suggest that she is nothing more than a badly realised plot device. She certainly feels like one. Giamatti's character, too, though based on a real person, feels hopelessly cartoonish, with no effort made to explore his motivations save to suggest he was deeply jealous of Sofya's relationship with her husband.

Some gravitas is regained in the latter stages, with Sofya finding herself shut out as Tolstoy enters his final decline and tears are likely to be jerked from all but the hard-hearted, but though the destination of The Last Station holds some interest, much of the journey is far too dull.

Reviewed on: 18 Feb 2010
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The final days of Tolstoy, focusing on his marital strife.
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Director: Michael Hoffman

Writer: Michael Hoffman, Jay Parini

Starring: James McAvoy, Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, Paul Giamatti, Anne-Marie Duff, Kerry Condon, Patrick Kennedy, John Sessions, David Masterson, Maximilian Gärtner, Tomas Spencer, Christian Gaul, Wolfgang Häntsch, Nenad Lucic

Year: 2009

Runtime: 112 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Germany, Russia, UK

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