Saturday, February 20, 2010

THE LAST STATION - patronising and superficial

THE LAST STATION is a lavishly produced but patronising biopic of Leo Tolstoy's last years - when he was the world's most famous author, but had turned his back on literary fame to pursue a life as a natural philosopher and advocate of interior spirituality and an austere life of renunciation. The movie is written and directed by Michael Hoffman - a director with a somewhat patchy history. In the early 1990s, he directed the scabrous network TV satire SOAPDISH but then settled into much more banal fare such as the Clooney-Pfeiffer rom-com ONE FINE DAY and the warmly photographed but morally equivocal curio THE EMPEROR'S CLUB. THE LAST STATION is also a rather odd film. The warm glow of its lavish photography (Sebastian Edschmid) and the beautiful production design (Patrizia von Brandestein) lend the whole enterprise a Merchant-Ivory glow. Who wouldn't want to be sitting in the real Yasnaya Polyana drinking tea with jam and listening to opera? Everything is wonderfully appointed and nothing more so that the fine cast. There may be grumblings about Anthony Hopkins and Meryl Streep pulling out of their roles as the ageing Lev and his wife Sofya, but their replacements, Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren are no less weighty. And in his typical role as callow naive voyeur we have James McAvoy, fresh from his apparent success in ATONEMENT, as Lev's secretary Valentin. This being a sort of Merchant Ivory world in which weighty literary stuff slips easily down the throat, Valentin has a love interest - an independent young woman called Masha (ROME's Kerry Condon). Naturally, in a world where all intellectual brain-ache has been banished, we shall be led through the story by our charming ingenu Valentin, and have the larger issue of Love versus Rules thought through by Valentin and Masha.

The tragedy of this film is that it had the real locations and a fine cast and production team at its disposal but chose to create nothing more complicated than a soupy melodrama. Sofya is the matriarch who loves her husband and is proud of his fiction but is contemptuous of the men who would turn his Confession into dogma, and steal her children's inheritance into the bargain. This could have been tragic: a woman of genuine nobility and strength forced to flatter and manipulate and throw hysterics in order to be heard. But Helen Mirren's broad performance plays right out of the newspaper reports that Chertkov would've been planting. Plummer's Tolsoy could have been more tragic still - a deperately intelligent man who is forced to hurt the one he loves in order to move forward with what he thinks is his larger plan - or a tragic buffoon manipulated by the ideologues who want to use his name and claim the copyright on his novels. Who knows? Michael Hoffman makes him a jovial old cock, but nothing more. He never acts but is acted upon. It is a curious void at the centre of the film. I have little to say about the character of Valentin other than that this is a rather stereotypical role for McAvoy and rather unworthy of the opposing (and fictional) character Masha. Kerry Condon is impressive - the only actor who seems to be embracing some kind of truth, but she has little to do. And as for Paul Giamatti's Chertkov, wouldn't it have been more interesting to make him sympathetic? To have us believe that he genuinely cares for, and believes in, Tolstoy, rather than being a cartoon-villain puritan and chancer.

What I'm trying to say is that, at the start of this film, we have established the dramatic tension within ten minutes. Sofya loves Tolstoy and wants his attention and his money. Chertkov loves Tolstoy and wants his name and his money. Sofya shouts and schemes. Chertkov wheedles and schemes. Tolstoy hobbles about between the two and then carc's it in a provincial train station. If you want to make a movie on this subject matter that sustains itself for two hours you have to be willing to dig deeper into motives and to play in shades of grey. You have to be willing to roll up your sleeeves and deal in moral ambiguities as well as in moral certainties. You can't just loll about in beautifully photographed countryside bouncing the same argument back and forth like the world's most dull tennis match.

Additional tags: Michael Hoffman, Kerry Condon, Patrick Kennedy, John Sessions, Sergei Yevtushenko, Sebastian Edschmid, Patrizia von Bradenstein

THE LAST STATION played Telluride 2009 and was released in the US, Canada, Germany and Austria earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK and opens next weekend in the Netherlands. It opens in Singapore on March 4th and in Switzerland on April 1st. Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer have been nominated both for Golden Globes and Academy Awards.

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