Directed by Michael Hoffman
Starring: James McAvoy, Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, Paul Giamatti, Kerry Condon, Ann-Marie Duff
Grade: C -
Pantomime season has been and gone, but if you're sorry you missed it you may want to check out Michael Hoffman's The Last Station, a theatrical vision of War and Peace author Leo Tolstoy's final days in Russia. Playing less like an historical biopic than a domestic melodrama (largely independent of any real historical context anyway) The Last Station flaunts a carousel of characters devoted to Christopher Plummer's Tolstoy and proceeds to let them duel it out to win his ultimate favour. A bold move perhaps, but one that threatens to alienate its subject even as the emphasis upon accessibility descends the setup into soap opera-levels of simplicity.
The Last Station recognises and even promotes its own silliness, through the farcical nature of Sofya Tolstoy's thinly-disguised contempt for her husband's politics and the tactless nature with which she seeks to preserve her family's status. Helen Mirren as Mrs. Tolstoy flails around shouting, screaming, and smashing things, and has some truly absurd dialogue to spout, the height of which occurs after she jumps into the lake in a faux attempt at suicide, only to emerge with the clarity and single-mindedness of a woman possessed, barking orders at her staff to find out which train Mr. Tolstoy boarded after he left her. Mirren is disastrous, exhibiting everything that is wrong about the film with barely a second thought, reluctant to alter any perceptions of her one-track character, impulsive but so rehearsed that her acid-tongued remarks seem self-conscious and throwaway.
The Last Station's countless rowdy moments are blatantly for show, and engulf everything else the film has to say about devotion, idolisation, and adolescence, even though what it does say about these elements amounts to little more than tokenness. McAvoy conveys Valentin's affection and belief for Tolstoy well, and is the only member of the cast who really sells the historical backstory, but the familiar journey from boy-to-man (The Last King of Scotland is a better example of this) is lost in the melee of legal disputes and marital conflict. It also doesn't help that The Last Station seems to conclude that, however influential, Tolstoy was actually rather ambivalent about his own work, and a slightly eccentric figurehead that wasn't really worth all of the fuss.