Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Surviving ideals

A lively, unexpected romp through Tolstoyâ??s final year

Posted on Wed, Feb 24, 2010 at 4:00 AM

****
The Last Station
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Rated: R
Cast: Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, Paul Giamatti, Anne-Marie Duff, James McAvoy
Director: Michael Hoffman
WorkNameSort: Last Station, The
Our Rating: 4.00

'Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,� wrote Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina. Tolstoy rightly observed that drama is where the good stuff lies. Of course, that doesn't mean Tolstoy wanted that for his own home life. Or did he? 

The Last Station, a fanciful look at the last year of the Russian author (Christopher Plummer) as seen through the eyes of his young, idealistic assistant Valentin (James McAvoy), never lands on an answer. Plummer's Tolstoy baits his Chekhovian wife (a hysterical Helen Mirren), then retreats. They break up to make up in fits of fiery septuagenarian histrionics that feel uplifting and fresh, at least until the guns come out. Tolstoy couldn't have written a grander construct than what lies at the heart of their fights. 

See, Tolstoy, along with his conniving lapdog Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), has created an anti-government manifesto based on constrictive medieval Christianity mixed with naturalism, all of which seems specifically designed to help nobody and frustrate everybody. The hormone-fueled youths staying at his compound, for one, can't be expected to live up to Tolstoyan prudery when Tolstoy exercises impressive stamina with his wife upstairs, nor can they take his edict to hurt no living thing very seriously when he's squishing pesky flies Obama-style. 

Rivaling the duality within the story is the picture itself, which sometimes feels like a thespian tug-of-war: Plummer and Mirren's grandiosity is fun, but look over here! It's McAvoy and his lover Kerry Condon with the big chemistry! And what's Giamatti doing making eyes at Tolstoy? The most riveting aspect of The Last Station could be its biggest fault ' the lack of generosity toward any of the parallel arcs by those within them ' but instead it plays out like a race: Who will get the last melancholy close-up? 

I applaud writer-director Michael Hoffman for letting the teams play without blowing the whistle for so long, but once he does step in there are piles of narrative bodies to scrape off the floor. Sadly, the one Hoffman keeps in the game is the maudlin, real-life death watch at Astapovo station, where Tolstoy succumbed to pneumonia just days after abandoning his family and his wealth, rendering Tolstoy's full embrace of Tolstoyism a speedy failure. It's unclear whether Hoffman stays with this finale for so long for the purpose of making us thoroughly despise Tolstoy's choices ' he's a bastard to his last breath ' or to try to muster sympathy for his wife, who never reaches the Sturm und Drang of Mirren's Queen Elizabeth II. 

Whatever the case, The Last Station is fun, at least until it reaches that titular stopover. 

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