Thursday, December 3, 2009

Connubial War, Not Much Peace

Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) enjoys a rare light moment with his wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren).

The Last Station
Written and directed by Michael Hoffman
Starring Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, and Paul Giamatti

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

Some movies appear to have all the elements for success and yet don’t work. Is it the script? The editing? With Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station, the problem would not appear to be the acting: Christopher Plummer plays the great Russian writer Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy; Helen Mirren is his wife—and literary assistant—of 48 years, Countess Sofya; Paul Giamatti plays his disciple Chertkov; and James McAvoy, acting as a stand-in for the audience, is Tolstoy’s new secretary, Valentin.

Valentin has arrived at a crucial point: Chertkov has nearly convinced the writer, whose Tolstoyan movement advocates the end of private property, to leave his wealth, and his copyrights, to the Russian people rather than his family. This causes Sofya—who has not only copied out War and Peace six times for her husband but has borne 12 children, 5 of whom have died—to nearly lose her wits. In one Lucy Ricardo‒esque scene, she, believing Tolstoy, in the company of Chertkov and Valentin, is about to sign a new will, climbs to a window in her nightdress and falls into the room, nearly taking the drapes with her. “Will somebody help me up?” she asks, and, remarkably—for god’s sake, she’s Tolstoy’s wife, a countess, and in her 60s!—no one does. Although we (capitalists that we are) and Valentin (sympathetic creature that he is) believe that Sofya has a good case—not to mention that Chertkov fairly oozes unctuousness and villainy—she comes across less passionate than hysterical. And despite her love for Tolstoy, she doesn’t seem to realize that in constantly bringing up the will she is reminding him of his perhaps imminent death.

Valentin, in the meantime, has fallen for a pretty young woman who works in the Tolstoyan commune, yet with a pronounced take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Although celibacy is apparently part of Tolstoy’s “ideal love” philosophy (one prim devotee blurts out to Valentin that he doesn’t court women because he’s “vegetarian”), Masha (Kerry Condon) thinks nothing of walking uninvited into Valentin’s tiny commune room and climbing onto him as he’s lying in bed. A harbinger of the modern, independent woman, she eventually takes off for Moscow (in contrast to Chekhov’s nearly contemporaneous, so to speak, three sisters, who only talk of going there).

The title of the movie, which is based on the novel by Jay Parini, who studied the diaries of Tolstoy’s associates, refers to the train station where the writer, gravely ill, alights and spends his final days. (Calling to mind events involving more recent international icons, such as Michael Jackson, camped-out reporters await every detail.) Here everyone’s true character comes into focus. Unfortunately—except perhaps in regard to Valentin (and Germany playing Russia in cinematic splendor)—for the audience the train has already left the station.

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