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The Last Station
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The Last Station – Review

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

When Valentin Bulgakov (James Mc Avoy) is employed as the private secretary of the Great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), he becomes a pawn in a highly emotional power struggle between Tolstoy’s wife Countess Sofya (Dame Helen Mirren) and Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), the head of Tolstoy’s Utopian movement.

The Countess, Tolstoy’s devoted wife, passionate lover and collaborator, is outraged when he renounces his noble title, his property and even his family in favour of poverty, vegetarianism and celibacy.

She fiercely fights for what she believes is rightly hers and clashes with the Chertkov, who convinces her husband to sign away the rights to his works to the Russian people instead of his family.

Unable to tame his wife’s uncontrollable anger and tolerate her extreme behaviour, the 82 year-old media celebrity runs away from home. In response, Sofya attempts suicide but in vain. Then she rents a train and chases Tolstoy.

WHAT’S IT LIKE?

Beautifully adapted from Jay Parini’s novel, set in 1910, it follows the last year of Tolstoy’s life.

The cast is impeccable. Dame Helen Mirren delivers a staggering performance as Sofya. With seemingly no effort, she shows the complexities and emotional strangulation that accompanied the end of this epic forty-eight year relationship. Making no excuses, Mirren deftly drills a porthole into this woman’s psyche which oscillates between her needy frustrations and her deeply coloured disdain of the Tolstoyan machine, without ever leaving an impression that the love Sofya held for this great man could ever diminish.

In fact this dreadful struggle seems only to add oxygen to the dying flames of their passion. Watching their relationship unravel is like being present at an unstoppable extinction of a favourite animal; and the ending hits an emotional note that is rare in modern cinema.

Christopher Plummer is a stroke of genius as Tolstoy, as he brings a sense of gravitas, humour and a wry octogenarian sensuality to the character, whilst cleverly evoking much Tolstoyan idealism through nuance. It is as much due to Hoffman’s script as it is to the performances that these characters are so wonderfully three-dimensional. Thankfully, There are no apologies made for their inconsistent behaviour, it is simply thrilling to watch a man such as Tolstoy being cuckolded into bed by his wife, away from his Utopian movement and his own ideals of sexual abstention.

Throughout the film there is a delightful resonance with Chekhov’s vision of Russia. Hoffman draws sweeping domestic visions of the dying Russian Aristocratic family life which could be plucked straight out of ‘The Cherry Orchard.’ Those delicious family moments that can turn on a six pence, where one is exposed to the humour, the weakness of human nature, the struggles and fear of the future, a changing time. Whilst every now and again your ear tunes to the gentle chop chop of the wood or birdcall, reminding us that these intimate outdoor interactions are always framed in Russia’s vast natural abundance and the people who work in it.

Primarily the film does not detail much of Tolstoy’s work itself, but concerns itself with these power struggles. The pull between Sofya’s extreme anxiety and the struggle of the Utopian movement serves as a ballast. With a delightful love affair between Vladimir and Masha (Kerry Condon). And the petty jealousies that always accompany such close relations are brilliantly peppered throughout.
It’s a very satisfying glimpse into an extraordinary end to such a huge man, and an amazing insight into how, in the end, great love really can endure and ideals should simply step aside for real human emotion. With other notable performances from the brilliant Anne Marie Duff and Paul Giamatti as the oleaginous Chertkov it’s is a wonderful unravelling, deeply moving ending that had Russia held in the grasp of one of the first paparazzi style celebrity deaths.

Opens Nationwide on 19th February 2010

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