(2009) dir. Michael Hoffman
viewed: 02/23/10 at the Albany Twin Theater, Albany, CA
The Last Station is a film about the turbulent last year in the life of a great writer and the love of his life. In this case, the great writer is Leo Tolstoy in his 80’s and the love of his life is his wife of more than 40 years. I had thought it interesting that I’d also relatively recently seen another film about the last year in the life of a great writer, the poet John Keats, and the love of his life. Bright Star (2009) is Keats and love and tragedy and youth, while The Last Station is Tolstoy and love and tragedy but at the end of a long and full life.
Perhaps the comparison really ends there. Perhaps not.
The Last Station is what I refer to as an “actorly” film (I don’t think I coined that phrase but spell checks, when I think to use them, like to correct that word), and as an “actorly” film, not the kind of film to which I am normally drawn. The reason being is that what I mean by “actorly” films is that these are films in which big actors are given juicy roles to play, and the draw to the films is to see the actors, engaged in acting, gunning often for awards. And, of course, this is certainly something that appeals to a lot of people. I prefer films that are made by directors, made with somewhat more of a sense of authorship and meaning, character, and vision. And I find that most of these films that are primarily stages to be trod by actors, they have less in the sense of vision and meaning, even if they are well-made.
For me, The Last Station is a good version of an actorly film, though not one that is overtly driven by the director’s sense of film. But it’s also driven by its story, the reality of the final year in the life of one of the great writers of the world, and for me, someone that I was particularly interested in biographically. I just finished reading “War and Peace” after the new year and had read an interesting article on Tolstoy a few years before, so was more open to seeing this film than perhaps I might be many others that I (perhaps very subjectively and not necessarily correctly) have deemed to be “actorly” films.
The acting is good, of course. Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, Paul Giamatti, and James McAvoy to name the bigger of the names. Mirren and Plummer get the most plum work, and McAvoy’s character, a Tolstoy devotee who lands the job as a secretary to the great writer, while not the most interesting of roles, is actually quite good. Mirren’s character, the Countess Tolstoy, gets the most overt drama, big histrionics, and comic turns, depicting a woman given to drama. She’s pretty much the center of the film. Plummer is well-embedded in his character, oozing the joy of life of a man of greatness, yet also the frustration with the dramas going on around him.
Tolstoy, in late life, became very politicized and inspired by religion, and looked upon his wealth and status as a very negative thing. His desire to commit to a more spiritually-driven and focussed life made the Countess feel deeply rejected and threatened, especially by the people who surrounded Tolstoy, seemingly looking to profit from his good nature and generosity. Ultimately, Tolstoy is driven away from his wealth and his family in escape from the drama, but the Countess as well. And the key of the story is that they have a great and true love that has existed and endured many decades, much devotion, much collaboration, and is hanging by a thread. Love can endure, but it can still be a pain in the ass.
Perhaps this focus on love, in the last year of a great writer’s life, at two polar ends of the spectrum of the length of life, is what drew me to the comparison between the Keats film and this one. Tolstoy died at 82, Keats at age 25. But perhaps more than I could draw from these biographical examinations (both films are adaptations of biographical books), is also the artistry of filmmaking. Jane Campion’s film, Bright Star, is much more a work of an auteur, a film that is more than the material and actors and story, is part of the filmmaker’s breadth of work and a much more moving and vivid film. The Last Station, while well-acted, well-produced, and quite a decent film, is much more pedestrian of an experience by comparison. To me, anyway.
That is opinion but also perhaps observation. Not meant to denigrate the Tolstoy film, but to make a point, perhaps about the types of films that I choose to watch.