The Last Station
Biopics are a curious creature, usually taking the standard birth to death narrative or more recently, like “I’m Not There” toying with the subjects very identity and persona. Avoiding the fractured narrative of the latter, Michael Hoffman’s “The Last Station” instead focuses in upon the last days of the enigmatic Leo Tolstoy, hoping to explain the man through the works he created and the people who defined him.
Beginning in 1910, the last year of Tolstoy’s (Christopher Plummer) life, a battle rages between the optimistically zealous acolytes of the author led by Vladamir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) and the eccentric Sophia Tolstoya (Helen Mirren) over the rights to Leo’s collective works. Sophia hopes to keep her husband’s output within the family to ensure their future financial security while Chertkov hopes to disseminate them to the populace so that he may better spread the word of the man he would see deified.
Caught between both factions is Tolstoy’s new private secretary, the naive Valentin (James McAvoy). Asked to spy for both sides, his ideals are called into question when he sees how such principles respond to the real world.
The optimism and folly are illustrated in McAvoy’s early performance, a young man enthralled with ideas but not necessarily prepared for their reality. The more nefarious nature of the same comes from the belief that to move against Leo’s wife is for the greater good, simply because of her opinions is the endgame, a fact they are unable to reconcile in their favour even for a moment. Although her ideas are far from progressive and stand in stark opposition to that of her husband’s, his are equally as flawed and to highlight such opposition merely posits that neither are perfect. Yet there is a simple pragmatism in all of Sophia’s theatrics otherwise lacking in the opposition.
McAvoy’s development comes in being placed between these two diverging viewpoints, a fact that is not played as much as it could be but perhaps lends it a lightness of tone that leaves much more for the viewer to interpret.
Mirren and McAvoy are effervescent in their portrayals, adding depth to otherwise stagnant and superfluous characters but the same cannot be said for Plummer. Despite his charm, the portrayal of Tolstoy himself as it is written is surprisingly detached and very little he does succeeds in adding further dimensions to the man upon which this film rests.
The degree of inaction towards the conclusion is a particularly irksome point, doing little to assuage the rather lengthy running time and damage done elsewhere.
Far too light in tone and content, Hoffman has created an interesting yet impotent examination of Tolstoy and the school of thought that developed around him. Enjoyable but never taking any real risks, like the Tolstoians there will be no direct legacy for the picture either.