Monday, August 2, 2010

The Last Station

Biopics can be tough.  Casting an actor to play a real person is always difficult (except for Morgan Freeman playing Nelson Mandela --- that was a no-brainer), but that is rarely the toughest part.  The real crux of a biopic is the story arc.  Just telling the life of a person usually mutes the inherent drama in that life (Public Enemies, anyone?).  In my opinion, the best way to go with these movies is to take a slice from the subject's life and follow one of the many story lines from it.  This notion leads us to The Last Station, which tells the tale of the famous Russian author/philosopher/Count Leo Tolstoy in the last year of his life. 

I entered this picture with only some general knowledge of Tolstoy's work (War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and I knew that he was influential on Ghandi), but even that knowledge was unnecessary.  This movie proved to be very "stupid American" friendly, explaining Tolstoy's life and philosophy simply and effectively.  That might sound like a pretty dry movie, but I found it to be enjoyable, containing a surprising amount of humor.

Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) is an old man with a big beard nearing the end of his life.  In his homeland of Russia, the opening credits tell us that many consider Tolstoy to be nearly a saint, and his religious/philosophical followers have established communes devoted to his principles of chastity, equality, and nonviolence.  The movie follows a young Tolstoian, Valentin (James McAvoy), as he is recruited by the head Tolstoian, Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), to be Tolstoy's new secretary.  Valentin is not just supposed to write about Tolstoy, though.  Chertkov needs Valentin to act as a Tolstoian spy in the Tolstoy home so Chertkov can manipulate Tolstoy against his wife.  Why would someone want to do that?  Well, Chertkov believes in Tolstoy the philosopher less than Tolstoy the man; if Chertkov can convince Tolstoy to actually follow through on some of Tolstoy's philosophical musings, like renouncing his private property, then the Tolstoian movement will have a founder that lived the movement's ideals.  Of course, that means that Tolstoy's wife, the Countess Sofya Tolstoy (Helen Mirren), would get pushed to the side with her more traditional views on family and religion.  Young Valentin is thrust in the middle of this barely civil conflict as the Tolstoians attempt to get Tolstoy to sign a new will that will essentially give away the copyrights to his writings, making them public domain.  Giving away a famous author's copyrights obviously will limit the inheritance of his children, so Sofya is violently opposed.  At times, Tolstoy seems determined to live his last days according to his writings.  At other times, though, he shares his lust for life with Sofya between their shouting matches.

As the main male character, Valentin gets his own plot thread that runs parallel to this conflict.  Valentin is a "good Tolstoian," which means that he adheres to Tolstoy's writings and has remained a virgin.  His beliefs come into question after some time with Tolstoy, who clearly has not been much of a Tolstoian at all; he is a wealthy Count that had several torrid love affairs in his youth, which he remembers fondly.  While staying at the local Tolstoian commune, Valentin meets a young woman, Masha (Kerry Condon), with whom he begins a relationship with.  Eventually, though, he is faced with the decision on whether he should follow Tolstoy or his heart.

One of the more surprising aspects to this movie is the complete lack of Russian accents.  It's not a bad thing, mind you, since bad accents can really hurt a movie (I'm looking at you, K-19: The Widowmaker), but it is kind of strange when the movie is about someone that is so very Russian as Leo Tolstoy.

The biggest surprise for me was the endearing relationship shown between Leo and Sofya Tolstoy in this movie.  I cannot think of another movie that portrays the affection between an old married couple better than this film.  You know those old, bickering couples that argue all the time, but clearly love each other and can't imagine life without the other?  That's what you get here.  The fights are loud and intentionally hurtful.  The love is childlike, and yet knowing.  They share a bedroom scene --- which is not gross, I promise! --- that is absolutely adorable.  Both Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer received Academy Award nominations for their work, and they were both well deserved.  Mirren, in particular, did a fantastic job.  Plummer's acting was also impressive, but it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge his lovely Tolstoy beard, which made his casting seem perfect.

The rest of the performances are pretty solid.  McAvoy once again plays a nervous young man and that shtick hasn't gotten old yet.  McAvoy's real-life wife, Anne-Marie Duff, turns in a less impressive performance as one of Tolstoy's daughters, but she doesn't do a bad job, per say.  The same can be said for Paul Giamatti and Kerry Condon.  They're not bad, but their roles just aren't very good.  I actually like Giamatti best when he plays finks like this, but there wasn't enough complexity to his character to really satisfy me.  Condon did a fine job with her role, but it was written in a way that made some of her character's choices seem rather abrupt and arbitrary.

The same can be said for the film's focus.  While the relationship between Leo and Sofya was fantastic, the rest of the film was a little limp.  I understand the need for a point-of-view character (in this case, Valentin), and I understand the urge to give him more depth by giving him a sub-plot.  Ultimately, though, that sub-plot needs to be relatively short or serve as an extended parallel to the Tolstoy marriage to truly work.  Here, the Valentin's love story is too long to simply be an aside, but not involved enough to do much for the plot as a whole.  In the end, Valentin professes his love for Masha, but it doesn't feel like the same sort of love we witness between the Tolstoys.  Oddly enough, the praise for the good performances and the criticism for the poor plotting can both be aimed at Michael Hoffman, who directed the film and wrote the screenplay from Jay Parini's novel. 

Overall, this is a surprisingly enjoyable movie with humor sprinkled throughout, but it is carried by the performances of Christopher Plummer and especially Helen Mirren.  The movie itself may not be anything special, but their performances help romanticize the notion of growing old with your special someone, even if they drive you nuts.

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