The Last Station Reviews
It's not that her co-stars Christopher Plummer (as Tolstoy), and Paul Giamatti (as the leader behind the "Tolstoy movement") don't hold their own, and really, the acting in this film is more than passable, but make no mistake, this is Mirren's film.
Mirren plays the countess, married for over 40 years to "the great man" Tolstoy, a national icon, who in his senior years begins ruminating on the class system and entitlement of the rich. With guidance from Giamatti he begins a movement that rejects religion as well as the accumulation of wealth - to the point where he wants to change his will, thereby giving the complete rights of his "intellectual property" - in other words royalties from his novels - to "the people", something that goes against the grain with the countess, who not only wants to look after the well being of their children and grand children, but is irked by not being recognized for helping Tolstoy write the books to begin with.
So there you have the gist of the story. Giamatti is the snake, trying to convince Tolstoy to "do the right thing" and donate his works to the people (and thus further solidifying his own position as the head of Tolstoyism - an odd and evolving manifesto that no-one really seems to have a firm grasp of). He is of course at loggerheads with Mirren, who is alternately compliant to her husband, but demanding of his attention. She rants, raves, cajoles, entreats, flirts - whatever is necessary to get Tolstoy's attention and feel his love.
You could have a tight little story here, but the film shoots at something larger, including the story of a young "secretary", brought in by Giamatti to spy on the countess, while aiding Tolstoy in getting his affairs in order. The young man lives in a commune set up on the far reaches of Tolstoy's estate, and there he falls for the commune school teacher. I suppose that this affair is supposed to contrast the "old love" that Tolstoy and the Countess have for one another with the new, fresh love of the secretary and teacher - but, like so much in the film, seems empty and gratuitous.
At the core, the film's real failure comes at the beginning and the end. On the front end you have a quote from Tolstoy that everything he has written comes from his knowledge of love. Nice quote, but really, it's just a sound byte and you can believe it if you care to... but what comes next is really galling - the film proclaims, in large lettering, that Tolstoy was the greatest novelist ever. Ok, by whose standards, and really, how can you quantify "greatness" in an art form? That bit alone took me a lot to get past - and Mirren does a great job of making me forget it, until the ending hits you like a melodramatic ton of bricks. Again, Mirren does a great job with what she's given here, but the tag with the reuniting of the secretary and the school teacher seemed so.... tidy (and unnecessary).
Another little scab I'd like to pick at - why is it that virtually every period piece requires a shot of a steam train bustling through an idyllic countryside? I swear I've seen virtually the same shot in at least ten films (and I'm not talking about the necessary train ride that gives the film its title here - the "money" shot comes early in the film).
In actuality, this film comes off more as a theatrical play - and perhaps would be better suited to the boards, where it becomes all about performance (something this has in spades), rather than content.
This movie is good and has some important significance on the life of Leo Tolstoy. Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer and James McAvoy all gave truly really good performances. I don't rate it so high because it's not really my type of movie and to be sincere it bored me a little but i'm sure this is one great film which many enjoyed.
In 1910, acclaimed Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, in the later stage of his life, works rather than a writer but as the leader of the Tolstoyan Movement, whose basic tenets are brotherly love and world peace through pacifism, and a denouncement of material wealth and physical love. His chief follower is Vladimir Chertkov, who does whatever he requires to advance the cause. Chertkov hires a young man named Valentin Bulgakov to be Tolstoy's personal secretary in carrying out this work. Once ensconced in the life on the estate where much of the work is taking place, Bulgakov quickly learns that many there take from the movement only what he/she wants/believes. Also chief amongst the movement's wants is the deeding of all Tolstoy's writings to the people so that after his death it will become public domain. Tolstoy's wife, the Countess Sofya Andreevna Tolstoy, believes that her husband's writings are rightfully hers after he passes, as she wants and believes she deserves the monetary benefits derived from such. This places a strain between those in the movement, especially Chertov and the Tolstoy's daughter Sasha, and the Countess. Bulgatov acts as the mediator between the parties, he who feels he needs to do what is truly in Tolstoy's heart regardless of what Tolstoy may say or do.
But Mirren's performance poses a problem for "Station" as well. Because she's so good, everything else in this film is incidental and not as compelling as it should be. Christopher Plummer and James McAvoy (one of the most underrated talents of this generation) are magnificent actors but they are so overshadowed by Mirren that the moments when she's not on screen become the equivalent of a commercial break.
Watch "Station" to witness a master actress at her best ... everything else falls short.
Director: Michael Hoffman
Summary: Set during the last year of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy's life, this biopic explores the fractious relationship between Tolstoy (Oscar nominee Christopher Plummer) and his wife (Oscar nominee Helen Mirren), as he embraces a life of asceticism. Paul Giamatti co-stars as impassioned Tolstoy devotee Vladimir Chertkov, with James McAvoy playing the aging writer's assistant, Valentin, who is caught in the middle of various struggles.
My Thoughts: "Helen Mirren has to be one of the best actresses out there. She gives a brilliant performance along with Christopher Plummer. This might be the best acting I have seen from James McAvoy. The story is moving, funny, sad, and full of love. Paul Giamatti's character is easily one to hate. He played it very well. Everyone in this film was brilliant. Christopher Plummer is superb as Leo Tolstoy who on the one hand enjoys who he is, but also feels guilty and thinks he can be better. Helen Mirren is brilliant as his wife the countess, who doesn't want her husband giving away everything that they have worked for together, their entire lives. It is a power struggle between the countess and Vladimir Chertkov over Tolstoy's work. Just a really fascinating film. I enjoyed it a lot."
I also wasn't terribly impressed with my golden boy, James McAvoy. He's starting to rely on tricks - rubbing his five o'clock shadow to seem pensive or distraught; smiling while shyly looking down and away to make himself more dreamy. Well, it's not working on me, mister!
The bitter and complicated love story is nice, but there isn't much conflict throughout the rest of the film. They're all essentially good people; they just want what they think is best, and no one really wins or loses.
Now, the film isn't a snoozefest, or maybe not after seeing as boring as "Melancholia". Still, the film is often rather slow and somewhat quiet, maybe not to a tedious extent, but certainly to an uninteresting extent. Considering its Oscar Bait status, it should come as no surprise that this film will often fail at holding your attention, but not very unengaging Oscar Bait films will be this underdeveloped or rushed in storytelling. Now, the film isn't entirely devoid of development, nor is its storytelling at the poor level of, say, "Heavenly Creatures", where so much is covered so speedily and messily that by the time you have any resemblence of investment in anything going on, it's right on next to the other one-dimensional, tediously slowly paced and poorly written segment of the story that's riddled with despicable characters. Oh sorry, I got caught up in critisizing that overrated pile of garbage; but anyways, the point is that this film is rather rushed and stands to be more developed, making lack of engagement even worse. Still, for every moment you slip out on the film, you can always rely on another good clean shot of charm to pull you back in and keep the film going. However, outside of fine production designs, decent dialogue and some pretty darn high emotional resonance towards the end, there's not much to the film, but what is consistently great and really carries this film through and through are, of course, the performers.
James McAvoy is as boomingly charming of a force as he usually is, but as much as I've only been praising him for his charisma, - man - the guy can act like nobody's business. Before the film even hits the fourteen minute mark, he blows you away when he first meets Tolstoy, the most celebrated novelist in the world at that time, and finds that he is only interested in the story behind his new employee and long-time fan; and with solid emotional work and a powerful atmosphere, McAvoy nails that sensation of meeting such a respectable figure and realizing just how good of a person they are. It's "The Last King of Scotland" all over again, where everyone's losing it over McAvoy's castmates, not realizing that the real star is McAvoy himself, and likfe "The Last King of Scotland", McAvoy carries his role as lead and avatar for the audience effortlessly with charisma and presence carrying him the whole way through. However, also like "The Last King of Scotland", McAvoy is not the only great performance in this film, and no matter how much you're drawn back to the screen whenever McAvoy occupies it, just about all of the same praise can be given to Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren. As I said earlier, Plummer is still killing those accents dead, but that's not the only thing about Leo Tolstoy that Plummer nails, as he manages to play up every ounce of charm, every ounce of emotion and every ounce of layer to his role that he ultimately transforms into the legend, and watching Plummer give this solid portrayal of Tolstoy is an experience in it of itself. The same, if not a little bit more can be said about Helen Mirren, who accomplishes the insanely difficult task of taking a potentally unlikable character and summoning true, powerful compellingness and incite into her side of the story; and as Sophya Tolstaya's story unravels you find yourself question what's really going on and who's really the bad guy in all of this with her stellar emoting that's matched only by her stellar atmosphere. There's not a single performance that's bad, or even below excellent in this film, and watching these incredible actors tell this not-always-captivating story and carry it to many highs in charm, as well as extremely high emotional resonance in the later acts make the film worth watching.
At the end of the day, the train that is this film barrels bumpily along, leaving lulls of engagement behind it on its path, but the tracks stay strongly intact, held together by fine production and charm, but most of all, the incredible lead performances that ultimately leave "The Last Station" to stand as a charming, when not touching, though consistently fascinating account on the final days of the legendary Leo Tolstoy. Okay, train puns aside, this thing barely has anything to do with a train. I mean, a big key theme towards the end of the film has to do with trains, but really, come on Jay Parini; you couldn't have come up with anything better than that?
3/5 - Good
Tolstoy's novels, "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina," had made him the most famous writer of his day in the world, but inside their home, another story, of his wife, Sofya, trying to prevent him from signing the copyrights to his works over to his peace movement, the Tolstoyans, which he had founded with the support of close friend Vladimir Chertkov, is consyming everyone involved... even the cinema audience...
A movie about love, control, ideals, greed - brought to life by a cast that makes the fire and passion and sadness very real.
Helen Mirren, as a woman with passion, after 48 years of marriage and 13 children, 8 of whom survived, feels she is being shunted aside for a movement she thinks is a fairy tale. The passive resistance and abandonment of property rights that Tolstoy (real star performance by Christopher Plummer) has adopted is something she would not allow when her property is on the agenda. She despises the "parasite" Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who, she thinks, has flattered and cajoled Tolstoy into his way of thinking. In the middle of those accusations, Chertkov sends Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), young honest believer in Tolstoy's vallues, to become Tolstoy's private secretary. But one of the ideas -celibacy thing becomes increasingly difficult to embrace once Valentin embraced Masha (Kerry Condon), his first real love.
At the end of this wonderfully worm and touching movie -during "The Last Station's" closing credits, you will see the real people who are portrayed in the movie, as a special treat! Watch it if you can!
Aspiring writer Valetine Bulgakov (James McAvoy) is hired by Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) to work for his idol, literary giant, Leo Tolstoy (played by Christopher Plummer who while fragile is still active and under the constant watch of his physician) at his country estate In addition to transcribing Tolstoy's thoughts, Valetine is also ordered to surreptitiously record everything that Tolstoy's passionate and volatile wife has to say about her idealistic husband's controversial will, which will make his work public domain upon his death, but this would also mean the loss of their family's inheritance and the security of their children.
Chertkov played by Paul Giamatti superbly is passionate to get Tolstoy to leave his works and legacy to the Russian people. Meanwhile, Tolstoy's wife Sofya, played by Helen Mirren is just as passionate to stop Tolstoy from robbing their children of their inheritance. The conflict between Sofya and Chertkov has no love lost, they despise and distrust each other as much as two people can.
The story itself, is mediated by James McAvoy's Valentin Bulgakov, who finds himself caught in the middle, is admirably believable as a young idealist who joins Tolstoy's circle only to discover that the master Tolstoy himself does not live by his own philosophy, which is ironic and that his immediate social environment is rife with antagonism and intrigue. He is also seduced by a beautiful girl who finds it difficult to abide by the master's austere ideals of sexual abstinence.
On paper there doesn't seem much to work up a sweat about but this remains an engrossing film because Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer absolutely carry the movie with their portrayals of the Tolstoys. Their scenes together are both explosive and romantic. The final scenes are very touching. It is a case where action speaks louder than words and there is good backup from a strong supporting cast.