Unfortunately, I am nowhere near as familiar with the works of Leo Tolstoy as I’d like. I’ve been meaning to read War And Peace for years, but it’s hard to find the time. Thankfully, if nothing else, The Last Station, Michael Hoffman’s film on the final year of Tolstoy’s life, only covers Tolstoy as a man and a symbol, and knowledge of his work as an artist isn’t entirely necessary to understand the film. Tolstoy was a fascinating man, an aristocrat who turned on his heritage to write the most beloved examples of realist literature and spent the end of his life building the Tolstoyans, a cult of anarchistic non-violent resistance. A full biopic, like a full film version of War And Peace would be extraordinarily difficult and very unwise (I’m aware that the 1968 Soviet version of the novel is considered a classic, but it is also eight hours long and, adjusting for inflation, cost the equivalent of $700 million). Hoffman’s decision to only concentrate on the author’s final months and his relationships with his wife and close friends was a good one, as were the decisions to cast Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren and Paul Giamatti in the main roles. Unfortunately, those are the only really good decisions evident in the final version, yet another well-acted, but by-the-book historical biopic that seems out of date after 2009’s radiant Bright Star proved just how great the genre could be.
Most of the film’s early praise (including a best actress win at the Rome International Film Festival) has focused on Mirren’s performance as Sofya Tolstoy, the author’s long-suffering wife. She gives a grand, complex performance without going too over-the-top. However, there is a limit to how many scenes of her yelling at her husband that I could take, and ultimately, they feel like little more than obvious awards-bait. Plummer is nearly every bit her equal as Tolstoy himself. Not only does he look remarkably like the author, but he still has as much fire as Mirren, and the film’s best scenes are simply the two of them going at it. Unfortunately, even these scenes tend to get a bit tiresome when they are shot as little more than a mediocre filmed stage-play, with no inventive camera-work or particularly original dialogue anywhere in sight. While it is in no way Plummer’s fault, during the rest of the film, Hoffman shows the literary genius as little more than a doddering old fool who has been taken advantage of by his evil business partner Vladimir Cherkov, played by Paul Giamatti. His performance may be as good as the other two, but his character is not interesting enough to be the film’s villain. Unfortunately, even the best actors can’t save a film if every role is under-written and poorly characterized. The actual protagonist is Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy in a role that never grows beyond a surrogate for the audience), an eager Tolstoyan who Cherkov sends to be Tolstoy’s secretary and to spy on Sofya, who has no interest in the pacifist communal life of her husband’s cult. Valentin quickly falls in love with someone else on the commune and spends so much of the film waffling between pro and anti-Tolstoyan beliefs that he never has a chance to become an interesting character. Since Tolstoy himself is frequently shown breaking the rules of his cult and Cherkov is seen as little more than a sycophant, the film’s main argument, between asceticism and love, quickly loses any power or interest as there is nobody to actually stand for Tolstoy’s ideas.
Outside of Tolstoy the man, the film also tries to deal with Tolstoy the symbol. Some of his sycophants call him a prophet and others go so far as to act like he is Christ-incarnate. The worst part of this (for the sake of the film as a whole) is that a biopic of a Christ-like Russian artist will automatically draw comparisons in my head to Andrei Rublev, and when comparing a non-Tarkovsky film to a Tarkovsky film, the non-Tarkovsky film will lose every time. Aside from some surface discussions on his importance to the movement, The Last Station never looks at what Tolstoy meant to his followers and just how far they would have gone for him. It would have been interesting if the film had alluded to the intense spiritual crisis that Tolstoy apparently went through during this time. Near the end of the film, soon before his death, he decides to leave his family for a more monastic life style, but, despite all the religious posturing earlier, it is made to seem like a purely emotional choice, and any commentary the film may have had on the relationship between emotion, logic and religious is quickly lost.
Stylistically, this is as dull and by-the-book as any other biopic. The most obvious problem in this area is an obtrusive, overly-expressive score that clearly attempts to manipulate the audience, especially during the film’s lighter first half. Earlier in 2009, Jane Campion’s sublime Bright Star showed just what beauty, both aesthetically and emotionally, could be found in the historical biopic. Its love story is one of the purest and most emotionally true I’ve ever seen on film and almost every shot feels like a romantic painting. It is a lesson on everything one of these films can do right. It would appear that Hoffman did not learn that lesson. Aside from the aforementioned underwritten characters constantly distracting from any actual idea of romance put forth and the obvious general lack of effort put into Valentin’s romantic sub-plot, which is all but left behind for the final third of the film, it just is not a well-made film. Where the Tolstoy’s manor could have been grand and beautiful, it’s drab and uninteresting. The camera generally stays at a safe distance, allowing the actors to work uninterrupted, before moving into a series of too-close close-ups that always seem to cut off the top of the actors’ heads.
Outside of the performances, there is simply nothing interesting about this film. None of the characters are interesting enough to be an emotional center, and, while I always appreciate a work that comes out in support of love over faith, it presents a quote from War And Peace early on, “Everything I know, I know because I love” and never digs any deeper. This could have been a fascinating story of a troubled genius in the throes of an intense existential crisis as he tries to come to terms with his relations at the end of his life. Instead it’s nothing more than middling, well-acted Oscar-bait.
“The Last Station” is Rated R for a scene of sexuality/nudity.
Opens in Boston January 2010
Written and Directed by Michael Hoffman, based on the novel The Last Station by Jay Parini; director of photography, Sebastian Edschmid; edited by Patricia Rommel; music by Sergei Yevtushenko; production designer, Patrizia Von Brandenstein; produced by Bonnie Arnold, Chris Curling and Jens Meurer; released by Sony Pictures Classics. Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes.
With: James McAvoy (Valentin Bulgakov), Christopher Plummer (Leo Tolstoy), Helen Mirren (Sofya Tolstoy), Paul Giamatti (Vladimir Chertkov), Anne-Marie Duff (Sasha Tolstoy) and Kerry Condon (Masha).