Friday, February 26, 2010

The Last Station: Derailed

The Last Station (2010) • View trailer for The Last Station
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for nudity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.26.10
Buy DVD: The Last Station • Buy Blu-Ray: The Last Station [Blu-ray]

Tempestuous period clashes between husband and wife cannot help being compared to the gold standard of this cinematic micro-genre: director Anthony Harvey's sizzling 1968 adaptation of The Lion in Winter, which starred Peter O'Toole as Henry II and Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitane.

Few performers have chewed up the scenery with such style, and James Goldstone's Academy Award-winning script  drawn from his own stage play  remains an exhilarating blend of historical fact, fancy and razor-edged temper tantrums.
Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) has been sent into Leo Tolstoy's
household in order to spy on the famed novelist's high-strung wife, Sofya
(Helen Mirren), and to keep a diary of all her conversations and behavior. Not
realizing this, Sofya in turn asks Valentin to spy on a man she doesn't trust,
by -- you guessed it -- keeping another diary of all his conversations and

Director/scripter Michael Hoffman's The Last Station, in great contrast, is oddly staid and uninvolving.

To be sure, stars Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren earn their Oscar nominations, for their shrewdly shaded portrayals of Leo and his wildly melodramatic wife, Sofya. Mirren, in particular, makes Sofya a pathetic and desperate creature: a woman who has grown to despise much about a husband whose hubris has gone way overboard ... but at the same time cannot imagine living without him.

Unfortunately, Hoffman's screenplay  adapted from Jay Parini's novel  assumes rather too much of its audience. Viewers lacking a great deal of knowledge about Tolstoy, and early 20th century Russia, are apt to get lost in a narrative that feels as though we've been dumped into chapter 37 of some expansive novel, and left to work out the various back-story details on our own.

Perhaps more telling, Hoffman's directorial focus goes not to Plummer and Mirren, but instead to James McAvoy's Valentin Bulgakov, the worshipful young man hired as Tolstoy's newest assistant. Hoffman too often concentrates on Valentin's coming-of-age lessons, particularly as related to his growing relationship with the free-spirited Masha (Kerry Condon), a young woman whose sexual willingness seems a bit out of place in these surroundings.

(I don't doubt, for a moment, that some early 20th century women were sexually adventurous: probably far more than history ever will acknowledge. But Condon looks and sounds too much like a 1960s flower child.)

Frankly, Hoffman seems most interested in Valentin, and McAvoy's sensitive, carefully layered performance certainly makes his the most compassionate character in these proceedings. But he's still a secondary character, and it seems wrong for him to steal so much focus from Tolstoy and his wife, particularly when acting heavyweights such as Plummer and Mirren are involved.

The film's balance feels off, as a result, and we're never quite sure who does  or doesn't  deserve our sympathy.

The problem is one of compression. Parini's novel is a dense book, drawn from the actual diaries kept by all these real-life people. On the one hand, it's nothing short of intoxicating to have so much primary source material; Tolstoy himself kept three diaries, of increasing intimacy and candor, which he selectively allowed to be read by the public, close friends and ... nobody. No doubt Parini found all this material invaluable while constructing a novel of multiple first-person narratives from six different points of view.

In Hoffman's film, though, we drown beneath the weight of too much left unspoken and unexplained. More than most historical novels, The Last Station cries for a long-form miniseries treatment, the better to become fully immersed in its inter-personal complexities ... and become equally captivated by both Leo and Sofya, and Valentin and Masha.

The story is set during the final year of Tolstoy's life, up to the moment he died in November 1910. Life at his palatial home has become tempestuous, because  much in the manner of L. Ron Hubbard, a few decades later  Tolstoy has embraced his own new touchy-feelie "religion": a movement of Tolstoyan disciples who share their mentor's discomfort regarding the Russian Orthodox Church, and his wealth and birthright of Russian nobility, and wish instead to live an ascetic and "more pure" life where material wealth is disregarded, and all men and women are treated equally.

But are not, apparently, encouraged to indulge in sexual relations. Virginity and abstinence seem prized among these followers.

Sofya, however, is deeply frustrated by her husband's apparent willingness to share (read: abandon) their family wealth; she quite reasonably worries about her future, and that of their children. She's also deeply suspicious of Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), a persuasive and fanatical acolyte who seems determined to secure the copyrights to all of Tolstoy's works, so that 'the people' may benefit from them.

If that makes Chertkov sound like a 21st century charlatan hustling bogus investment schemes, it's no doubt intentional; Giamatti couldn't be more quietly sinister if he tried (a portrayal of Chertkov somewhat at odds with established history).

The naive Valentin gets dumped into this roiling emotional stew by Chertkov, ostensibly to assist Tolstoy, but more specifically to spy on Sofya, and prevent her from unduly influencing her husband. Valentin initially accepts this posting with great enthusiasm, but his sycophantish devotion to Chertkov wanes as he grows to better understand the dynamic between Tolstoy and his wife.

Valentin's growing bond with Masha  both emotional and sexual  also opens the young man's eyes to the complexities of relationships, and the deep and abiding bond generated by true love.

Truth be told, at 82 Tolstoy no longer is certain of his actual desires, or his place in the world, or how he wishes to be remembered, or indeed of anything else; Plummer plays the celebrated author as a weakening, pitiable old man who simply wants peace.

Mirren's Sofya, blessed with the florid theatrics of an opera star, isn't about to grant her husband such calm: certainly not while Vladimir waits in the wings. Her ailments and suicide threats are staged for maximum impact, although she's careful to minimize her more outlandish behavior when in the presence of the journalists and photographers who, like modern paparazzi stalkers, camp outside the Tolstoy estate at all times.

The various conflicts and confrontations build to the climactic moment when, as Tolstoy did in real life, he finally leaves Sofya and his home, succumbing to Chertkov's seductive encouragement to "live free." But the badly ailing author gets no farther than the Astapova train station before collapsing, at which point Hoffman's film grants far more closure than any of these characters actually enjoyed in real life.

No question: The film's final scenes are poignant and quite sad, and Mirren has a stand-out moment when Sofya finally obtains an audience with her husband, from whom she has been shielded by Chertkov. But our emotional investment isn't nearly what it might have been, given a better sense of what Leo and Sofya Tolstoy were like during their earlier years, and how Chertkov came to be the snake in their well-staffed Garden of Eden.

The occasional contradictions also are vexing: Tolstoy talks a good show, but he enjoys the labors of an impressive house staff and all manner of peasants farming his lands.

Ultimately, The Last Station is too superficial: Much as I wanted to care about these people, it was difficult to muster much empathy.

Better, I suspect, to read War and Peace or Anna Karenina.

No comments:

Post a Comment