Just seeing the cast list made me want to see this film: Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, Paul Giamatti, James McAvoy. But I’m also interested in screenplays that spin drama from historic events and characters. I’ve tried it and know it’s a tough assignment. Michael Hoffman wrote and directed The Last Station based on the book of the same name by Jay Parini. As a director, Hoffman has created a faithful re-creation on screen.
The bucolic commune where “Tolstoyans” live on the land and follow the philosophy of the great writer, Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), the sumptuous details of the privileged Russian aristocracy (oh, the Countess’ outfits!), and Tolstoy’s casual acceptance of the public’s adulation (with the paparazzi camping out, filming and photographing his every move), are both aesthetic and authentic. There is a sense of naturalness about it all, a feeling that it was really like this.
At the beginning, the film follows Valentin Bulgakov (McAvoy) who is hired to be Tolstoy’s assistant. Through him we learn about the Tolstoyan philosophy and the ardent followers whose belief borders on religious. But once Valentin has a sexual encounter, questions are raised in his mind, and in mine, too. If his point of view is supposed to lead us through this story, then why does his character retreat into the background? As Valentin moves to the edges of the screen, attention switches to the more interesting Tolstoy and his drama-queen wife, Countess Sofya (the glorious Helen Mirren).
Tolstoy listens to the advice of Chertkov (Giamatti), a zealous disciple who believes that the copyrights of Tolstoy’s books should be signed over to the masses. The Countess counters that, as the mother of Tolstoy’s 13 children and the person who copied War and Peace by hand six times, she and her children deserve the copyrights as part of their inheritance. This is a clear dramatic conflict that should have started the film. It motivates most of the action and informs the different points of view.
There are some wonderful scenes -- a highlight is the joyously funny bedroom scene with Tolstoy and his wife -- but unfortunately, individual scenes don’t make a satisfying screenplay. There are a number of interesting characters, but their potential barely adds to the dramatic action: Chertkov, who literally twirls his waxed mustache in clichéd villainy; Sasha Tolstoy, the daughter whose antagonism toward her mother just dissolves; Masha, Valentin’s lover, who leaves the commune; and Dushan, Tolstoy’s doctor, who writes down everything that’s said in the room. These characters and their issues feel like fragments of a longer screenplay.
The Last Station has wonderful art direction and first-rate performances, but without a clear empathetic connection or a strong storyline, it ends up being an intellectual exercise, a beautifully illustrated history lesson. The unfocused screenplay almost never involved me on an emotional level.
Truthfully, what touched me the most was the documentary footage of the actual Count and Countess Tolstoy, shown with the end credits.