The Last Station
Review by Jack Foley
AT FIRST glance, a film about the final days of Tolstoy may seem like a hard sell to audiences, unless they’re huge fans of the Russian author’s text (he wrote War & Peace among his many classic works.
But Michael Hoffman’s tragi-comedy is actually an appealing, and often very emotionally affecting, piece of work that also features a clutch of great performances.
The story picks up as young Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) is appointed secretary to the great Count Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) only to find himself caught up in the subsequent complexities of the author’s life… whether in his dealings with the Tolstoyans, led by Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), or with his fiery wife Sofya (Helen Mirren).
In between such wranglings, Valentin also takes his own first steps towards romance with Sasha Tolstoy (played by Anne-Marie Duff).
By his own admission, Hoffman wasn’t interested in making a conventional biopic, even though his depiction of Tolstoy and the people surrounding him has met with the approval of his surviving descendents.
Rather, this is an intriguing insight into the nature of love and marriage that’s encompassed by the political machinations of those seeking to further Tolstoy’s beliefs and writings for their own advantage.
Plummer and Mirren are superb as the continually bickering couple who somehow, in spite of their incessant arguing, still manage to convince that they love each other – whether outrageously making chicken noises to each other during the year’s most unlikely bedroom scene, or saying their farewells at the point of Tolstoy’s death.
But McAvoy, too, is a likeable – if slight – presence, Duff is as superb as ever and Giamatti delivers his best moustache twirling villain… albeit one who believes in his own motivations.
Hoffman’s film isn’t without flaws, of course. It’s still a might too long (almost inevitable when concerning the guy who wrote War & Peace!), while the light nature of proceedings threatens to dent the film’s ability to stay with you afterwards.
But thanks to the quality of the performances, however, you may well find yourself shedding an unlikely tear as Mirren’s heartbroken Sofya says her reluctant goodbye at Astapovo Station… managing to convey in a few brief moments what some film’s strive to put forward over the course of 90-plus minutes.
The Last Station is a surprisingly affecting piece of work.
Running time: 110mins
UK DVD and Blu-ray Release: June 21, 2010