Sunday, February 7, 2010


Director/screenwriter Michael Hoffman has achieved his greatest accomplishment yet with historical drama The Last Station.  The film is about Russian author Leo Tolstoy in his final days and it documents his very public struggle to remain true to the values he preaches to live a life of peace, non-resistance and being abstaining from luxury.  He is torn between loyalties to his greatest champion, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) and wife Sofya (Helen Mirren), as they dispute his final will and who shall own copyright of his literary catalogue.  Chertkov believes the public should own copyright to it as this is what Tolstoy's work would suggest, while Sofya feels his family and she, the wife and mother of their 13 children, should have this right.

Simultaneously, we are introduced to Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) who is hired aboard as Tolstoy's secretary.  He is a great admirer of Tolstoy's work and tries to live his life according to the values he promotes, including the virtues of celibacy.  Bulgakov soon learns that the world is not perfect and that love can change everything, after falling madly in love with free-spirited Masha (Kerry Condon).  While working under Tolstoy, Bulgakov witnesses the heated drama first-hand and he is torn between his loyalties to Chertkov who landed him his prestigious job and also, Sofya.  Meanwhile, she is growing increasingly suspicious of Chertkov's influence on her husband and her insecurities get the best of her as her husband begins to pull away, longing to live his final days in peace.

The Last Station is a beautifully acted film.  Mirren shows dynamic range from playful seductress to an outright fiery bitch when it comes to her own financial security.   Yes again, she proves that she is Oscar worthy as the true star of the show.  Maybe perhaps enough to give early favourite Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side) a surprise upset?  And despite her irrational outbursts, we cannot help but feel that she is justified in her actions as in the real world, love and financial entitlement are things a wife should be entitled to.  But this is Tolstoy's world, where even we get a sense that his ideologies sound great on paper but just might not hold up to the test of reality.   

Surprisingly, Canada's Plummer after a very lofty list of cinematic accomplishments including The Sound of Music and Jesus of Nazareth, finally at 80 years old is getting his first Oscar nomination here for Best Supporting Actor, fully embodying Leo Tolstoy's weathered fragility.  Giamatti is also outstanding, giving the story that bit of push and pull to help us see why it is that Tolstoy had an obligation to the world, maybe more than to his family.  Handsome McAvoy's boyish purity gives us an outsider's glimpse of the curious world within the walls of the Tolstoy residence.

Alas, the story is tied-up neatly and a sense of natural order is restored again with a very touching conclusion.  It is everything The Notebook should have been without being irreversibly encased in a molasses and burnt sugar concoction.  Sony Pictures Classics' The Last Station has just the right balance of comedy, drama and romance to give it that bit of cross-generational appeal.  Grade: A

Although not my best work, here's a picture I got of Plummer in his visit to Toronto this past September for TIFF, at the gala for The Imaginarium of Doctor Paranassus:

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