Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Last Station (2009)

This Andrei "Tango & Cash" Konchalovsky-produced period drama about the last few months of Lev Tolstoy's life is handsome, well-acted, and quite engaging. Just don't expect a reading of Anna Karenina.

James McAvoy, in his best performance so far, plays young Valentin Bulgakov. Like many of young men and women of his generation, he feels a bizarre affinity to the Tolstoyan philosophy and is offered the job of a lifetime by Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti in his usual Paul Giamatti shtick) to be Tolstoy's private secretary. But there is a caveat: he needs to keep a diary of the goings-on within the Tolstoy household without the knowledge of the big man or his wife Sofya (Helen Mirren in her usual brilliance). Chertkov, who is in house-arrest in Moscow, wants to ensure that Tolstoy relinquishes the rights to his work for humanity's benefit, while Sofya Tolstaya wants her husband's money and work to remain in the family hands.

Valentin is all giddy with excitement upon meting Tolstoy, but his initial excitement gives way to other urges. He falls in love with a fellow Tolstoyan "volunteer", Masha (Kerry Condon), whose free-spirit is at odds with the Philosophy. Their indiscretion, to Valentin's surprsie, is approved of by the big man. However, more troubling for Valentin is the way Sofya is treated by the myriad of people surrounding her husband, including her daughter.

Even though the film recounts the life and times of Tolstoy, it is more about Valentin's own doubts about the pacifist movement. During their walks in the woods, Tolstoy and Valentin talk about love, about the big man's past sexual conquests, and about how much Sofya means to him. Yet, those who uphold his philosophy in the commune seem to have quite a stronghold on how love should manifest itself - or not. Facing the dichotomy of a theory and its implementation, Valentin feels drawn more towards Sofya's plight. However, her seemingly pathetic efforts soon wear thin on Valentin and his devotion to Tolstoy the Man soon takes over his devotion to his philosophy. The parallels between what Russia would go through in the next few years is pretty obvious, when the implementation of the Marxist theory proves a little problematic.

Another important point of discussion in the film is the ownership of rights to an artistic creation. This question is even more poignant given our social media-driven society, which enables sharing artistic content within seconds. In a way, we are giving away our thoughts, opinions, quips, jokes etc for free. Should the artist retain the ownership of his/her work forever like an "object", or is the public the rightful owner of this work? In other words, is it the artist's duty to produce art, or is art a privilege for the public? The film touches this point very lightly and I wish it continued in that vein. Sadly, it degenerates into pure melodrama by the end.

I am unfamiliar with that last days of Tolstoy and things may have occurred as they are depicted in the film, whose based-on-a-true-story credentials are bolstered by the stock footage shown during the end credits, but the mise-en-scene and the narrative logic of the third act belies the film's potential.

Having said that, it is so much better than what you may expect. Thankfully, Michael Hoffman's screenplay (based on the novel by Jay Parini) doesn't go down the Shakespeare in Love route and present us a giant of world literature as the most boring man ever walked the Earth. Christopher Plummer's Tolstoy is every bit as the genius / bore you would expect Tolstoy to be. The humour is well-balanced and never takes away from "the Big Question(s)". I would have liked a little more of Paul Giamatti's Chertkov and his tete-a-tete with Dame Helen Mirren's Sofya, but I may be asking too much from a low-budget period piece.

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