tue 21/05/2019

The Last Station | reviews, news & interviews

The Last Station

The Last Station

Mirren on fire as Tolstoy's end is played out as melodrama

The smoking embers of a long marriage: Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren as the Tolstoys in The Last Station

The final days of Tolstoy are innately dramatic, as the American author Jay Parini intuited. The Last Station, published in 1990, was his novel about the novelist’s own denouement. Towards the end of his long and prodigiously successful life, Tolstoy chose to embrace the simple values of the fabled Russian peasant he had lionised in War and Peace. To that end, he determined to leave his entire fortune and publishing rights to the political organisation set up to disseminate his credo. For his wife, it was naturally all rather upsetting.

The main reason for watching the film of the book is that the part of Countess Tolstoy is taken by Helen Mirren. The Motion Picture Academy has noted her contribution. Those who know her only from her work in Prime Suspect and The Queen are in for a shock. Where Mirren is familiar as the mistress of the frigid glare and the stony heart, here she gets to embody a type of femininity from the other end of the scale. The Countess will stop at nothing, however undignifying, to prevent her husband from signing away the wealth to which, as his muse of many decades, she feels entitled. Tantrums, seductions, plate-smashing, fainting and even, when all else fails, a rather naffly filmed suicide attempt – she deploys every manipulation in the book. And Mirren has enormous fun with it.

200px-Chertkov_with_tolstoyDoes the film around which her performance is built have quite the same impact? It’s a sturdy adaptation by director Michael Hoffman, prettily filmed in authentic-looking fields and forests, but afflicted by some of the troubles that visit Anglophone films about alien cultures. There is the usual problem of an international cacophony of accents and acting styles, served up in a sort of mock Russified stew of patronymics and whiskers. Tolstoy himself has a hint of the Canadian about him, being embodied behind a grizzled beard by Christopher Plummer (also nominated in a supporting role). Vladimir Chertkov, the devout Tolstoyan who, at least in this version, has an unpleasant scheming side to him, is played by the American star of Sideways, Paul Giamatti (right: the real Tolstoy and Chertkov).

We see the story through the eyes of Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), a doe-eyed acolyte sent from Moscow to be the novelist’s breathless new amanuensis. Enjoined by Chertkov to observe the malign influence of the Countess, note everything in a diary and report back, no sooner has he arrived at the Tolstoyan residence than the Countess is instructing him to observe the malign influence of Chertkov, note everything in a diary and report back. With keepers of the flame scrapping over the legacy of a man who is not yet a corpse, the house of Tolstoy is divided against itself.

You feel slightly sorry for McAvoy. He is given a little affair in Tolstoy’s nearby commune with a forthright co-worker (Kerry Condon) who has none of the Countess’s belief in the enduring primacy of romantic love. But his task is largely reduced to that of a spectator who slowly sheds his rather vanilla brand of idealism. Our eyes in the room, as it were, he is never quite allowed to plump for one side or the other. And nor can we. Or, one fears, quite care. Hats off to Mirren for doing her own cold-water stunt work in the attempted suicide scene, but really it’s difficult to feel too much for the impossible Countess. Until the end, that is.

In deteriorating health, Tolstoy finally abandons once and for all the moneyed trappings of his lifestyle in order to embark on a pilgrimage. He soon falls dangerously ill on the journey, and takes to bed in a railway station. Crowds gather, news reporters hasten to the scene, and Chertkov acts as gatekeeper. As the author of Anna Karenina, the great novel about love, lies dying, his wife is confined to a carriage in a railway siding and barred until eventually, ushered into his presence, there is an affecting reunion, beautifully played by Mirren and Plummer.

For The Last Station we should give thanks that, in an art form which fetishises young female beauty (as indeed does this film in McAvoy and Condon’s love scene), the smoking embers of a long marriage have made it onto the screen. But nothing is as moving as the closing credits: flickering monochrome footage of the original event, shot at Astapovo station in 1910, spirit us back to the scenes portrayed in a way that this wordy melodrama can’t quite match.

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