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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Film Review | The Last Station

Moscow on the Thames & Hudson

by Thomas Delapa

Nearly 60 years ago, upstart film critic François Truffaut railed at what he derisively called the “tradition of quality” in French cinema. Literary-based, staid and lifeless, these were films that to Truffaut lacked “pulse.” The same ticket can be stamped for The Last Station, which goes off the tracks early and often.

Don’t let those Oscar nominations for Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer fool you. As the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, Plummer may have borrowed Charlton Heston’s Ten Commandments beard, but otherwise he’s no Slavic prophet. Mirren, meanwhile, plays Tolstoy’s nettlesome wife, Sofya, and seems to be channeling a train-load of literary baggage from Anna Karenina to the mad Ophelia.

In a consummately Russian story, Anglo-American accents lay siege like the White Russian army marching on 1918 Moscow. Not just Mirren and Plummer but James McAvoy (Atonement) and Paul Giamatti are featured in this melodramatic adaptation of Jay Parini’s 1990 novel. As Tolstoy’s surly communist disciple Chertkov, Giamatti is a one-man dictatorship of the proletariat.

The time is 1910 and the elderly Tolstoy is world-famous for War and Peace and Anna Karenina. He has his own devout, cult-like following--Tolstoyans--who reject private property and other bourgeois freedoms. In the battle for Tolstoy’s heart and writing royalties, writer/director Michael Hoffman (Restoration) pits Chertkov against Sofya, who’s desperately afraid she and her family will be edited out of Tolstoy’s will. Valentin (McAvoy), Tolstoy’s nervous new secretary, is caught in the middle of Hoffman’s mild and mannered Marxist dialectic.

There’s little doubt which side Hoffman is on in the war between fiery love and cold idealism. Giamatti’s Chertkov is a sneering, spying proto-Lenin who has a Rasputin-like grip on the weary old man. Despite Sofya’s insecurities and snide elitism, she’s devoted to her husband, even after their marriage derails in the last act.

Broad and soap-operatic, Mirren’s performance is the antithesis of the precise and nuanced work that won her (deservedly) the Oscar crown for The Queen. While Mirren overacts, McAvoy dithers and sneezes as Valentin, flashing those big blue eyes that have hoodwinked him into U.K. stardom. As the spry, free-spirited Masha, Valentin’s lover, only Kerry Condon escapes Hoffman’s train wreck.

The Last Station is handsome to look at, decorated in posh production design and the tree-lined vistas of Tolstoy’s estate (actually shot in Germany). But it’s formulaic in ways that make 1980s Merchant-Ivory films look like Russian avant-garde cinema. Reel in a few continental stars, toss in pretty pictures, a little sex and pseudo-literary cred, and you have a nouveau version of Truffaut’s tradition of quality. As a revolutionary alternative, Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and their comrades roiled the film world with the French New Wave in the 1960s. What can audiences hope for against today’s sea of art-film artifice?



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