‘The Last Station’: Slow train runnin’

January 15, 2010

“The Last Station” is the movie equivalent of what passes for serious drama on Broadway these days: a lot of big-name stars clustered together in a production of an otherwise unremarkable script.


OK, not that big-name: While Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer might pull them in on Broadway, they’re not exactly Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman. And, in terms of movie box office, their names mean next to nothing, even with Mirren’s Oscar. Nor will the names James McAvoy or Paul Giamatti inspire many ticket sales, as outstanding as Giamatti always is (and McAvoy, for that matter).


Oh, and yeah – it’s a movie about Tolstoy. Not an adaptation of Tolstoy – talk about your box-office magnets – but a drama about the Russian writer’s final days.


As the opening titles explain, Tolstoy has created a belief system of his own, built around the idea of rejecting worldly possessions and abstaining from sex. His followers, led by Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti), have nearly convinced Tolstoy (Plummer) to change his will, leaving the rights to his novels in the public domain, rather than leaving the royalties to his family. But his wife, the Countess Sofya Tolstoy (Mirren), is naturally opposed to this idea.


So Chertkov hires Valentin Bulgakov (McAvoy) to be Tolstoy’s new secretary and sends him off to Tolstoy’s dacha in the woods, where he has the task of recording all events he sees and reporting them back to Chertkov. If he can also persuade Tolstoy to Chertkov’s way of thinking about the will, so much the better.


Bulgakov, a would-be writer, is young and impressionable and worships Tolstoy. Still, he’s not exactly steadfast in his celibacy, falling quickly for Masha (Kerry Condon), a lusty fellow Tolstoyan who casually seduces him on one of his first nights at the compound.


Bulgakov also finds that things are not quite as cut-and-dried as Chertkov led him to believe. The Countess is a fierce, sometimes pitiable figure who makes a strong case for retaining the monetary legacy of her husband’s work. She did, after all, copy it all out, being the only person who could decipher the Count’s scrawl. In some ways, she’s as much the author as Tolstoy himself.


He also finds Tolstoy to be mercurial and seemingly unfixed in his philosophy; his ideas seem to be more fluid than Chertkov gives him credit for. Indeed, Tolstoy seems amused at the Tolstoyans, who rigorously follow what they interpret as rules for living, when Tolstoy himself only takes them as suggestions.


There’s room for both drama and fun in director Michael Hoffman’s staid script, but he doesn’t seem to find much of either. And the key problem seems to be: not enough Tolstoy. Plummer makes the shambling old writer a wily old fox, who loves exercising both his temper and his whims. Yet he is too easily manipulated by Chertkov, who seems so obviously self-serving behind his rigid sense of piety.


Still, Giamatti is a joy whenever he faces off with Mirren, who can be a fury when she’s unleashed. The two despise each other, and are given a handful of arguments that take the form of elaborately courteous exchanges, each more flattering and solicitous than the other. They’re the best-written and acted scenes in the film.


McAvoy needs to move beyond the fresh-faced-youth roles in which he seems stuck: the naïve loser who gets schooled and wises up. He plays it well but he’s played it too often. Condon, as his unexpected lover, has a pleasingly efficient quality, as if to say, “Enough for foreplay – let’s get down.”


In the end, “The Last Station” has to face facts: Tolstoy is going to die and these people will be left fighting over what remains. The question is whether you want to stick around to find out. I’ve got it at 50/50 against.


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