In recent years, there’s been a trend toward rough-edged, realistic movies about dead famous people — movies that toss viewers into the past and force them to sink or swim. Judging by the receipts of films such as Bright Star and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, audiences aren’t that grateful for the tough love.
The Last Station, a sprightly drama about the latter days of Leo Tolstoy, is not that kind of movie. It’s the kind that spells things out — first with helpful intertitles, then with big performances and schematic plotting. Written and directed by Michael Hoffman (One Fine Day, Restoration) and based on the 1990 novel by Middlebury professor Jay Parini, The Last Station feels like a throwback to the heyday of Merchant Ivory Productions. Like Howards End, it’s exquisitely designed and photographed, a gilded frame for an all-star cast. And, like A Room With a View, it has philosophical pretensions that boil down quickly to a simple, crowd-pleasing message: Love is good; repression is bad.
It’s 1910, and the world-famous author (Christopher Plummer), in his eighties, is holed up on his estate, where he divides his time between communing with his adoring disciples and bickering with his not-so-adoring wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren). The countess doesn’t share the aged Tolstoy’s gospel of celibacy and Christ-like poverty, and she fears he will make good on his beliefs by donating the copyrights of his books to the Russian people. Meanwhile, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), Tolstoy’s secretary, hopes for just that.
Into this nest of vipers comes the film’s ingenu, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy). A recent Tolstoyan convert, he’s sent by Chertkov (who’s been banned from the estate) to spy on Sofya. But the sly countess, who knows how to sweet-talk an inexperienced youth, makes him her confidant. Soon a comely woodswoman from the nearby commune (Kerry Condon) is tempting Bulgakov to rethink his ideals.
It’s never in doubt where The Last Station is headed. Giamatti and his sect come off as self-important buffoons, and Bulgakov has a nervous tic — a sneeze — that serves as an all-too-obvious emblem of his animal urges. Even Tolstoy admits he’s too human to share the fervor of his followers.
The film’s real drama is in the sparring between the two Tolstoys. Sofya is prone to grand gestures — threatening to imitate the demise of Anna Karenina, say, or telling her disloyal daughter, “I lost five children. Why couldn’t you have been one of them?” Sometimes Tolstoy gives as good as he gets, but often Plummer just gazes at Mirren in bemusement, like a hapless husband on a sitcom.
It’s always fun to watch skilled actors throw subtlety to the winds and play to the cheap seats. (Mirren’s turn as a sardonic gorgon is especially enjoyable.) But are these performances really Oscar worthy? In my view, Hoffman’s script doesn’t give Mirren and Plummer the quiet, everyday moments they need to set off the histrionics. We get the point — at each other’s throats or not, these two are in love. And it’s nice to be reminded that good marriages aren’t always tranquil ones. But then the film veers from comedy of manners into elegiac sentimentality, and we realize these characters are going to remain icons inhabiting an impeccably art-directed world.
As historical biopics go, The Last Station is lively, and that’s always a good thing. Just don’t expect it to have the density — or depth — of a Tolstoy novel.
But do come to the film with questions for author Jay Parini, who will speak before and after the showing of The Last Station on Saturday, February 27, at 6:30 p.m., at the Palace 9 in South Burlington.