Sunday, April 4, 2010
THE LAST STATION / ***
Distributor: Sony Classics
Release Date: January 15, 2010
Genre: Historical Drama
Running Time: 112 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Before I even get into this review, I need to admit that I’ve never read one of Leo Tolstoy’s books. I know of them, and I have a vague knowledge of him, but I just wanted to make it clear that I did not go into “The Last Station” as any kind of Tolstoy expert.
Director Michael Hoffman’s (who directed one of my favorite overlooked films, 2005’s “Game 6,” as well as “Restoration”) film isn’t a straight up biopic. Working from a novel by Jay Parini, “Station” looks at the very end of Tolstoy’s life, when things like dividing up his estate had become necessary. Two main camps jostling for control of Tolstoy’s words: one is his wife Sofya Tolstaya (Oscar winner Helen Mirren), the other is led by Vladimir Chertkov (Oscar nominee Paul Giamatti), who strongly believes that Tolstoy’s writings should be the property of the Russian people, not Sofya.
Then, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) gets thrown right into the middle, as he has just become Tolstoy’s new biographer. Both Vladimir and Sofya present Valentin with a diary, asking him to write down everything he sees. Each side is highly untrusting and openly hostile of the other, and both see Valentin as a possible means of gaining leverage over their rival. Vladimir is particularly cruel, telling Sofya at one point “If I had a wife like you, I would blow my brains out!”
The scenes between Giamatti and Mirren are mostly the best in the film, but one scene in particular sticks out for me. Tolstoy and Sofya are in the middle of an argument, which winds up turning amorous. Part of their foreplay includes clucking like a chicken, which sounds a lot kinkier than it actually is. In truth the scene is a heartwarming exchange between a couple that has loved each other for a very long time. Only actors as good as Mirren and Christopher Plummer, who scored his first ever Oscar nomination at age 80 this year for playing the legendary writer, could have made the scene work, and that scene is the key to the entire movie.
Valentin is given a side plot about falling in love with one of his fellow workers, a pretty young lady named Masha (Kerry Condon). Their love story felt completely forced, in stark contrast to the one presented by Mirren and Plummer. McAvoy has proven himself a gifted actor in the past (“The Last King of Scotland,” “Atonement”), but there is a distinct lack of chemistry between him and Condon.
Overall the movie works due to the strong performances of Plummer, Mirren, and Giamatti. It gets a little melodramatic at times, but the wit and grace of the aforementioned trio manage to make up for most of the film’s shortcomings.
Theater: Ruth Sokolof Theater, Omaha, NE
Time: 915 pm
Date: March 3, 2010