Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

Forum locked This topic is locked, you cannot edit posts or make further replies.  [ 1 post ] 
Author Message
PostPosted: Fri Feb 05, 2010 8:46 pm 
Site Admin

Joined: Sat Mar 08, 2003 1:50 pm
Posts: 3628
Location: California/NYC

Muddled ending

As The Last Station begins, Leo (more correctly Lev or Liev) Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) has given up novel-writing for the dissemination of his own personal Tolstoyan ideology based on a literal interpretation of the ethical teachings of Jesus. It calls upon the privileged to devote themselves to vegetarianism, pacifism, and helping the poor. Tolstoy's ideas about non-violent resistance were later to have a strong influence on Gandhi and Martin Luther King. At this point communities in Russia have been set up to practice his principles, and we glimpse one, though Tolstoy himself lives at one remove from it on his big estate, eighty-something, long-bearded, still riding horses, writing, and arguing (often affectionately) with his wife. Given to fits of generosity that have long infuriated her, he's now planning to turn over the rights to his literary works (War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and the rest) to the Russian people. This means royalties won't go to his heirs. Sofya (Helen Mirren), his passionate and outspoken wife of 48 years, is vehemently opposed to this, which she sees as an abandonment of the rights and needs of Tolstoy's own family. She was supposed to be the literary executor. Her chief opponent on this issue aside from Tolstoy himself is his arch-supporter and secretary, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti); Chertkov's vying with Sofya for control of the rights.

And vying is hardly the word; hyperventilating might be more appropriate. Mirren shouts. Plummer growls. Giamatti barks. The Last Station is a heavy-breathing historical weepie. It's a Russo-German production in which everything happens and nothing happens and everybody speaks English. More British than Russian despite its authentic-looking costumes and sets, this is one of those posh Masterpiece Theater-style productions that draws you in but never feels quite convincing. It's a feast of overacting, tumult, and peasant clothing made to order for older members of the middle-class art house audience. It's hard to see who's the greatest drama queen here, though Mirren, who's played a remarkable array of great women in her time including the wife of Caligula, a gangland kingpin's moll and -- in more restrained mode -- a very un-drama queen Queen of England, probably earns the scenery-chewing prize; she lets out all the stops. The yelling, hissing, ranting, and sobbing never stop. Sometimes, as they send out great puffs of black smoke and chug noisily into remote Russian outposts, including Astapovo station where the writer lives his last days, even the antique railway trains seem to be overacting.

As a wide-eyed and innocent new secretary named Valentin sent by Chertkov to spy on the family, the young Scottish actor James McAvoy blushes, grins, tears up, and sneezes -- nervous reactions because he's so happy and awed to be in the presence of the great man; the cutesy-ness of this is cloying. The cast also includes McAvoy's real-life wife Anne-Marie Duff, as Sasha, Tolstoy's daughter. But Valentin isn't involved with Sasha; he connects with a feisty young member of the household at Tolstoy's country estate called Masha (Kerry Condon). Masha agrees with the idealistic ethical principles of the group but thinks everyone's a pompous bore. Tolstoy seems to be against sex, but Valentin breaks the rules with Masha. McAvoy chews up the scenery in his own way. His character's rather saccharine purity contrasts with the overbearing power struggle and ideological posturing, but never really becomes clearly relevant to the main drama. Maybe he's meant to draw in a younger audience for the movie, but the effort is feeble.

Much is made of separations and reunions. Masha leaves the estate, putting Valentin in a quandary. He's too wound up in the Tolstoy family drama to go and join her but it's his loss. Tolstoy is bent on ending his days like a monk and goes off leaving Sofya behind to abandon everything in a remote area, but he never makes it beyond the train station at Astapovo, where he falls ill. Sofya comes, is sent away, comes back. It all ends in a funeral scene full of Russian peasant faces (recruited actually in Germany, where the film was mostly shot), a sequence Eisenstein would have done much better. This story is an example of the irony of the rich and famous posing as simple souls. Tolstoy thinks himself alone in his last days but there are hundreds of journalists and photographers outside and the note-taking every time he opens his mouth never ceases.

Christopher Plummer, who really is 80, is a real acting lion. He's grand in his long gray beard and looks quite like the real Tolstoy. But what he's doing is hamming it up. Giamatti, a good journeyman whose best roles are still the lovable losers he played in American Splendor and Sideways, looks a lot like the real Chertkov and if we're just not meant to like him, he's done enough. Mirren is a great actress, but here she's just shrill. Plummer's and Mirren's foreplay scene in which they cavort in bed and cock-a-doodle-do and giggle is about as embarrassing as discreet art house cinema can get. Working from a recent historical novel by Jay Parini, Michael Hoffman has not exercised sufficient restraint over his cast in this misguided effort. The actors are at their most, but not at their best. And, worse yet, it's never clear what we're supposed to make of these people, and whether Tolstoy's last days were futile, tragic, or just highly publicized.

┬ęChris Knipp. Blog:

Display posts from previous:  Sort by  
Forum locked This topic is locked, you cannot edit posts or make further replies.  [ 1 post ] 

All times are UTC - 8 hours

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 20 guests

You cannot post new topics in this forum
You cannot reply to topics in this forum
You cannot edit your posts in this forum
You cannot delete your posts in this forum
You cannot post attachments in this forum

Search for:
Jump to:  
Powered by phpBB® Forum Software © phpBB Group