Last month I got to learn all about the great Chinese philosopher Confucius. This month I had the opportunity to find out a little more about a certain Russian called Tolstoy. Sure, I could associate the name with the insanely long classic novel War and Peace, but I honestly knew little more about the guy other than that.
Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was not just a 19th Century novelist. Although his fictional work often captured the essence of Russian life within this Century, his work went far beyond the fictional realm. He was widely regarded as a great philosopher and teacher, his principles and Tolstoyan beliefs most notably establishing what would later be known as active pacifism, his ideas subsequently having a profound impact on both Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
But in the early 20th Century, the twilight era of Tolstoy's life, all the man wanted to do was complete his writings and live out his life quietly and peacefully. Loved by the people, burdened by the importance of his work, and pressured by a wife who has to share him with the rest of the country, this was not such an easy task.
The Last Station is set during the last year of this great writer's life. His wife, Countess Sofya, is worried that he will vary his will and pledge his work to the people of Russia, thereby depriving his numerous children of their inheritance. A devoted disciple of the Tolstoyan regime, Vladimir Chertkov is determined to see that this change occurs, that the people of Russia have the rights to his work. To this end he dispatches a new secretary, Valentin Bulgakov, to Tolstoy's estate, which has become something of a commune for his followers.
Valentin is determined to be a good Tolstoyan, a discipline that involves largely eschewing personal possession, and abstaining from sex, something which this inexperienced and distinctly repressed young man appears to be more than happy to do. What he discovers, however, is the truth behind the founder of this 'school of belief', and the reality about love itself, as he gets to know a fiesty young woman called Masha, who also belongs to the commune. As things heat up between Tolstoy and his outspoken wife, Valentin himself is forced to choose where his loyalty lies. Does he follow Chertkov's orders and support the changing of the will, or does he bow down to the passionate wife, who only wants her family to keep the legacy that her husband has earned?
The Last Station is a strange little independent film, which gives us a nice insight into the twilight era of this great Russian's life, but largely eschews real depth in favour of soap drama. Don't get me wrong, it's perfectly set for the Period, with nice little Russian nicknames bandied around. The acting is decent enough, and the dialogue occasionally insightful. But the story lacks any kind of real punch or significance. Sure, it hints at Tolstoy's life's work, cleverly juxtaposing his own practices and experiences, with his proclaimed ideals, but it seems more focussed on shouting matches between him and his wife, and the relationship development between his protégé of a secretary and the young tomboy on the estate. Despite the lavish setting, the reality behind Tolstoy's political significance and the influence of his work is largely obscured by the standard soap dramatics. It is a shame that they go so heavily down this route, belabouring the point that Tolstoy struggled to balance his wealth, fame and family with his personal beliefs in a life devoid of all material things, and failing to offer any other dimension to this great man.
You can see why it worked out this way, of course. The cast is led by Christopher Plummer, a veteran actor who has been in everything from The Return of The Pink Panther, Sound of Music and The Man Who Would Be King, to Star Trek IV and Wolf. As you can tell from his résumé, he is adept at playing solid supporting roles, bringing some gravitas to any production that he is involved in. He is not, however, particularly used to being the focus, the leading man, and here he appears to share the limelight with a certain Mr James McAvoy. This young Scot has come a long way since his roots on Brit TV dramas, catapulted to stardom with his starring roles in the Hollywood blockbuster Wanted, opposite Angelina Jolie, and in the critically acclaimed period romance Atonement, opposite Keira Knightley. His participation in this movie is no coincidence. For whilst this is ostensibly a tale about Christopher Plummer's ageing Tolstoy, it is almost as much about his young - and historically insignificant - protégé, played by the more marketable McAvoy.
The producers clearly wanted to cash in on McAvoy's Atonement image, and draw in the younger adult crowd who are seeking a similar kind of romantic drama here, so they diluted the significance of Tolstoy's work by tenuously relating it to the experiences of this young secretary. Unfortunately, the end result has a negative effect on both strands to the story, and thereby diminishes the work as a whole. Two thirds of the way into the film, when the story finally reaches the titular 'last station' we are left wondering whether or not we really care, and, indeed, who we are supposed to care for. The young new-found romantic or the world-weary author who is searching for peace? It feels thoroughly anticlimactic, perhaps because there has not been the requisite build-up beforehand. This does not feel like a tale of Tolstoy's life and life's work, it feels like a relationship drama built upon historical events that would only be significant if you were up on your Russian history. It's a shame, and a missed opportunity. And I think that basically McAvoy unintentionally ruins it.
Which brings me to the acting. Plummer is an indisputably great old man Tolstoy. In fact, I think that, despite his history of supporting roles, he could have carried this movie by himself - if he was allowed to. McAvoy, on the other hand, whilst an indisputably great upcoming young actor, is simply on autopilot here. He has just become too accustomed to his trademark roles of wide-eyed, inexperienced young men who are shocked after they get a taste of real life. He has been doing it throughout his career, from Shameless to his reworking of MacBeth, both done for TV, right through to Wanted and The Last King of Scotland. And whilst he has shown great promise, and has held his own against some pretty heavyweight actors, he has become somewhat pigeon-holed in this trademark depiction. At some point he is going to have to take more grown-up roles (as he did in Atonement), and it is almost a shame to see him in this drama, as it feels more like a step sideways (or even backwards) rather than a step forwards.
Everybody else in the Brit-dominated cast fits in perfectly: Helen Mirren shows exactly why she is such a well-respected actress with quite a stretching role as Tolstoy's beleaguered but impetuous wife, Kerry Condon (from BBC/HBO's Rome) makes for a strangely alluring love interest, Brit comedian John Sessions plays the on-hand physician at the Estate, and the ever-reliable Paul Giamatti appears to be channelling the same Russian undertones he used for The Illusionist. Even McAvoy's old partner-in-crime from Shameless, Anne-Marie Duff, pops up as Tolstoy's daughter, although her part is fairly minor.
The Last Station isn't a broad, revealing biopic of the great Russian author Tolstoy. In fact it isn't really much about the guy himself at all. More focussed on the notion of preaching what you don't practice, or the consequences of practicing what somebody else preaches, even the titular 'last station' is fairly unnecessary to the plot. And McAvoy's audience-friendly prominence only dilutes from the ostensibly main character, rather than adding to the depth. Considering how polished and refined the production was, I was a bit disappointed that they did not go for something with more depth than just this standard soap drama, supposedly made more potent by symbolism and allusion. I can see why this little indie drama has received so much critical acclaim, but I think it could have had a bit more punch. Watchable, fairly enjoyable but not particularly revealing, Tolstoy deserves more.
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