16 February 2010

Review: "The Last Station"

At first glance The Last Station may not appear to be the best film to see on Valentine's Day, especially with options like the overstuffed Valentine's Day being released into theatres. It is nonetheless a film about love, though it focuses on the tumultuous later states of Sofya and Leo Tolstoy's marriage. The film tells us that Leo Tolstoy is one of the most celebrated authors in history, and while his two most revered novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, are only referred to briefly in the film, it is quickly evident that the film is a story about a man and wife, and not a biography of Tolstoy himself. The film is directed by Michael Hoffman, whose most well known film may be 1995's disappointing One Fine Day, which starred Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney. Hoffman also adapted the screenplay from a 1990 novel by Jay Parini, and some of the dialogue appears too contrived, especially one line of dialogue uttered by Paul Giamatti in the first half of the film. The film stars Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer, with supporting performances by James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti and Anne-Marie Duff. The Last Station is dependent on the tremendous acting in the film, which thankfully overshadows the film's laboured pacing.

Set during the year leading up to Leo Tolstoy's (Plummer) November 1910 death,The Last Station depicts Sofya Tolstoy's (Mirren) efforts to prevent her husband from signing away the rights to his literary works. Tolstoy is heavily influenced by his close friend and confidant Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti), the founder of the Tolstoyans (the followers of Tolstoy's religious and philosophical views). Chertkov believes that Tolstoy should sign his rights over to the people of Russia, which would leave his six children without an inheritance. Valentin Bulgakov (McAvoy) has been sent to the estate by Chertkov to act as Tolstoy's secretary, and report on the relationship between Sofya and her husband. Bulgakov meets a young Tolsyotan, Masha (Kerry Condon) and their blossoming love reminds Sofya of the relationship she and Leo once had. It causes her great pain that her daughter Sasha (Duff) works tirelessly against her in an effort to ally herself with Chertkov. The Last Station does not give any insight into who Tolstoy was, but the film is anchored by exceptional performances that keep the film from falling apart.

The Last Station is the last film I needed to see to be prepared to share my final decisions on the acting races for the Academy Awards. Helen Mirren is nominated for Best Actress, and while it is a fantastic performance, I would not rank her among the five best actresses of 2009. Christopher Plummer, on the other hand, is wonderful as Leo Tolstoy and deserving of his nomination for Supporting Actor. The cinematography of the film was superb, showcasing the outdoors with sun-drenched shots and the lush green colours of the trees. I find it very odd that so many foreign biopics are done with British actors, and I wonder why it is acceptable for Russians to be played with English accents. After watching The Last Station, how are viewers supposed to remember that Leo Tolstoy was one of Russia's most important authors? While it is certainly worth seeing for the performances, but I felt that the screenplay and direction were lacking.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

Now the only film I need to see before March 7 is District 9.

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