Published Jan 21, 2010With parallel romances, one beginning and another ending, broadly conflicting ideologues juggling perspectives and a twee coming-of-age framing device, The Last Station tells the tale of Leo Tolstoy's final days without ever giving an impression of any of the writer's work, revelling instead in art film pretence. In fact, those unfamiliar with the Russian Realist novelist likely wouldn't be inclined to take a stab at his work if presented with this hammy, compartmentalized spectacle.
Through the eyes of an overly naïve sycophant in training named Valentin (James McAvoy), no less, we see Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) building up a cult of idealistic pacifists with the aid of Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), an overly complimentary, moustache twirling manipulator. Because Tolstoy's ideals have Communist undertones, his pragmatic wife Sofya (Helen Mirren, the film's only saving grace) fears that he will give away all their worldly earnings, leaving her with nothing after his death.
An occasional clumsy stab at romance breaks up a series of overly didactic and theatrical battles, while everyone manipulates each other, individually inhabiting their representational ideologue rather than a human being.
From Giamatti's ridiculously over-the-top performance to a dreadful doting on emotion where only broadly sketched cartoon characters lie, The Last Station drags on endlessly, delivering only sporadic insights on arbitrary political posturing. Sofya's teatime jabs at theoretical babble and gentle coaxing of the young Valentin are indeed the highlights of the film.
Worse still is a lack of perspective, both mocking and celebrating the hypocrisy and honour of a collective code. It sees the humour in a group of people splintering off from social constraints to construct their own equally rigid and arbitrary set of moral guiding values, but doesn't suggest a benefit otherwise.
We're left mainly with a film that boasts the wide lens shots, costumes and acting pedigree of an awards season period piece, but delivers little more than a tonally awkward hybrid of unchecked performances and dreadful pacing. (Mongrel Media)