Thursday, February 11, 2010
Movie review: The Last Station
"When he was your age, he was whoring in the Caucasus."
Anyone with ambitions of catching Oscar-nominated performances prior to Academy Awards night must perforce take in a screening of Michael Hoffman's The Last Station, as it showcases two of them: Helen Mirren, playing Countess Sofya Tolstoy (up for Best Actress) and Christopher Plummer, as Leo Tolstoy (nominated for Best Supporting Actor).
This fictionalized biographical narrative (scripted by Hoffman from the novel by Jay Parini) imagines the Tolstoys at their Yasnaya Polyana estate at a time long after the celebrated Russian novelist has achieved fame and fortune. In fact, Tolstoy commands such celebrity status that a movement (cult?) called "Tolstoyanism" has grown up around him. Tolstoyans celebrate the great man's works, his anarchist philosophy, and his rejection of the notion of private property. Oh, and they're vegans. Who adhere to celibacy. (At least, they profess to do so.)
Back in the big city, Tolstoy's close confidant Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti, delightfully insidious) is worried that Sofya's controlling personality will exert an unfortunate moderating effect on the iconic author. He (Chertkov) is anxious to have Tolstoy redraft his will, giving away the rights to his writings and his properties. To ensure that this happens, Chertkov has emplaced confederates amongst the household, perhaps the most influential of whom is Tolstoy's resident physician, Dushan (John Sessions). Dushan provides on-call enema therapies, and between times transcribes conversations between the Countess and Tolstoy. (Much to the Countess's consternation.)
Newly arrived among Chertkov's spies is Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy, wide-eyed, naive, and virginal). Straightaway, young Bulgakov's commitment to celibacy is put to the test (and found wanting) thanks to the promiscuous presence of Masha (Kerry Condon, Octavia from HBO's Rome). Bulgakov and Masha's budding relationship is contrasted against the complex, stormy, seasoned love of the Tolstoys, who seem to alternate between adoration and unbridled hatred.
Plummer's Tolstoy sports a beard of Rasputin proportions, while channeling quite successfully the good-natured magnetism that the aging dean of letters must have exerted over his legions of followers. Mirren is a force majeure, refusing to be marginalized in the disposition of her husband's business matters. (Not to mention his domestic ones.)
This sumptuosly filmed, character-driven drama is enhanced by a romantic score courtesy of Sergei Yevtushenko, which manifests both as soaring strings and a melancholy solo piano theme. We even get a glimpse of early paparazzi, as a dedicated cadre of view camera equipped photographers hang out on the Tolstoy property to document the outward manifestations of the marital discord taking place within.
Events culminate in an off-the-beaten-path railroad station along the route that Tolstoy has taken -- at the behest of his associates -- to escape the overbearing clutches of the Countess. But there's no escaping one's destiny, and as the world comes to roost on his doorstep, he and Sofya come to a final rapprochement.
AN HEROIC UNDERTAKING?: "When he was your age, he was whoring in the Caucasus." - Countess Sofya, to Valentin
EUREKA: "I love you. You're pure. You're what I came here to find." - Masha, to Valentin
HOBSON'S CHOICE?: "If I had a wife like you I would have blown my brains out. Or gone to America." - Chertkov, to Countess Sofya