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Friday, March 19, 2010

The Last Station - My Review

I had never even heard of The Last Station until Oscar nominations came out and even then, I didn't know what the film was about. It was only after I started seeing the clips during various awards ceremonies that I discovered it was about writer Leo Tolstoy. Having read Anna Karenina about a year and a half ago, I was very interested to see this film.

The film centers on Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), a young Tolstoyan, who is handpicked by Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), Tolstoy's closest friend and the overseer of his legacy, to act as private secretary to Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) himself. In truth, Chertkov wants Valentin to keep tabs on Tolstoy's wife Sofya Tolstaya (Helen Mirren).  Nearing the end of his life there is a battle raging for control of Tolstoy's literary legacy.  Chertkov wants it to be willed to Russia and its people, while Sofya wants it to remain with the family to ensure future financial stability.  Poor Valentin is just eager to work on a daily basis with the man who inspired his way of living, but instead he gets drawn into the household drama and doesn't know which way his allegiance should lie.

Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren were both nominated for Oscars for their roles as the Tolstoys and it is well deserved.  They give powerful performances, full of drama, romance, heartbreak, wistfulness, vulnerability, and mischief - perfectly matched, neither one outshines the other.  Next to those incredible actors, James McAvoy is once again overlooked by the people who give out the awards despite the fact that he gives a wonderfully realized and touching performance as the naive, earnest secretary, seemingly in over his head.

Aside from the struggle over Tolstoy's literary legacy, this film is really about love.  The well worn love between a man and wife who have been together for decades, the new love blooming between two young people who share ideals, the question of whether love can be too powerful, too all consuming for one's own good?   

I am woefully ignorant of Russian history and although I have read Anna Karenina, it was not an easy read, and I still don't know as much about Tolstoy as I would like.  But even with my small familiarity, I was pleased to recognize some things in the film that were little nods to his work.  For example, Sofya tells Valentin that Tolstoy wrote her a letter before they were married that recounted all his past indiscretions, just as Levin made Kitty read his diarires before they were married in Anna Karenina.  I also know that at the time of his death Tolstoy was the most famous author in the world and this is shown in the film by the "paparazzi" (I used quotes for this word since this film takes place in 1910, at least 50 years before "paparazzi" came to be a used term) camped outside his family estate.  He and his family can't go out of doors without being photographed or pestered for a quote for the newspapers.  It's a rather fun little side story in this many layered film.

According to the official website, The Last Station was filmed mainly in Germany and it's stunningly beautiful. There are a lot of shots outdoors and the forests and fields and ponds are all captured in a golden/green light that shimmers with a heaviness that can almost be felt on your skin.  There was one outdoors scene in particular between Plummer and McAvoy that felt almost suffocating in its headiness and the overwhelming number of insects flying around their heads.  The only thing I could think about as I watched it was it must have been a horrid shooting day.

Apparently this film is based on a novel by the same name by Jay Parini. It's a mix of fact and fiction and is inspired by the diaries kept by several members of the Tolstoy household.  I'm now eager to read it.

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