Saturday, February 27, 2010

Trouble at the Tolstoys'

The Last Station wasn't quite the movie I was expecting; that's both a good and a bad thing. Surely, I thought, a film about a Dying Writer and his Moral Struggles would be dark, grim, and gloomy; The Last Station is not. On the other hand, I left the theater thinking the film could have benefited had the actors and writers shown a little more of the restraint that this sort of serious period costume drama is supposed to exemplify.

While critics are supposed to abhor introductory explanatory text even more than they despise voiceovers, I think The Last Station makes the right decision by opening with an epigraph and a few paragraphs of contextualization. While the movie retains some over-obvious explanatory dialogue about Tolstoy's radical philosophy and his disagreements with established religion, we're not burdened with too many improbably didactic conversations. The film establishes its story quickly: It's 1910, Tolstoy is old, sick, and a utopian philosopher. The Great Man wants to change his will and give his copyright to the Russian people. His long-suffering wife objects.

Though The Last Station's plot and – to be honest – the film's advertising revolve around the dispute between Count Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) and his wife Sofya (Helen Mirren), the audience hardly receives these characters unmediated. Instead, we see the disintegrating Tolstoy household through the eyes of Tolstoy's new secretary and amanuensis, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy). At times, The Last Station almost abandons the story of Tolstoy and Sofya for the romance between Valentin and Masha (Kerry Condon), but the film's ostensible purpose returns in the final act; Masha is almost entirely absent the last third of the film. Valentin, however, is nigh-omnipresent. He's miraculously present at just about every dramatically significant moment that occurs around the Tolstoys. Mostly he just takes notes and witnesses; it takes a frustratingly long time for him to actually influence any of the events that happen all around him.

Before seeing the movie, I'd read that The Last Station suffered from overacting. I'm not sure that the fault lies with the actors; rather, the screenwriters call for such extremes of emotion that credulity strains. Worse, I thought that many scenes were just wrong for the performers; Helen Mirren may be a great actress, but her presence is so, um, regal that it's hard to believe her smashing crockery and screaming. She does a fine job portraying Sofya slowly cracking, but she seems off when her character finally breaks apart. Plummer does well with what he's given, but we never gain much sense of his genius or the reasons for his philosophical convictions. Perhaps he just wants to be unhappy? The Last Station doesn't try hard enough to make sense of Tolstoy; something's missing at what should be the film's center.

More than one literary critic has claimed that the Great Russians are in fact quite funny, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that The Last Station is often quite comic. There's a running gag about Valentin's propensity to sneeze when nervous, a humorous Tolstoy bedroom scene, and a few jokes at the expense of Paul Giamatti's character's mustache. The Last Station, given its actors and subject matter, could easily have ended up tediously dreary. I'm glad it didn't.

Much of The Last Station takes place indoors in turn-of-the-century opulence, though there are several lovely outdoor scenes. The landscape – apparently German in real life – looks appropriately Russian, and a few scenes were evidently shot on location in Russia. Alas, there's one major barrier to suspension of disbelief: The protagonists' language. Much as I hate to admit it, I would have liked this movie more had it worn subtitles. There are many scenes where the English dialogue goes more or less unnoticed, but at other points the script uses far too many colloquialisms. Especially bad is a joke revolving around an English language pun...

I enjoyed The Last Station, but it's not a film I ever desire to watch again. The characters alternate between being too passive and too dramatic; one feels that the scriptwriters let down the fine actors. Though the material and the cast promise much, the film itself remains merely competent. The Last Station isn't dour or depressing, but it's hardly lively either. Perhaps I should have skipped the movie and just read the book?

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