All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. As this famous Tolstoy quotation faded out of the opening scene of The Last Station, I got the feeling my hopes were raised too high. The premise of the film, you see, is very good; it charts the last year of the life of Leo Tolstoy (Plummer), who, having embraced a spiritual and ascetic way of life, is regarded by many Russians as virtually a saint. In his private life, however, he is very old, very ill and constantly fighting with his wife and muse of forty-eight years, the Countess Sofya (Mirren), over the rights to his life’s work. We see the shakiness of these last days of their marriage through the eyes of Tolstoy’s fresh-faced and admiring new secretary, Valentin Bulgakov (McAvoy), who learns a lot about life, and of course love, from the great man.
Although Plummer and Mirren are both nominated for Oscars for their performances, I felt that director Michael Hoffman did not make full use of either actor, or indeed of Tolstoy’s story, owing at least in part to the fact that the script is certainly not a work of literary genius. You can tell that McAvoy was struggling a little with what he had been given; on Valentin’s first meeting with Tolstoy, he supposedly becomes overwhelmed with emotion, although it took me a while to work this out, as he looks more like a hayfever sufferer who’s been hit in the face with a six-kilo daffodil. This is a fairly accurate simile, in fact, as Valentin sneezes whenever he is nervous, an emotion-conveying shortcut that I found intensely annoying.
The sneezey, over-earnest Valentin improves slightly as he becomes more worldly, and gives up his excruciatingly well-guarded virginity to his new girlfriend Masha (Condon). This is supposed to be the blossoming-young-love story that offsets the souring love between Tolstoy and the Countess, but it is very poorly executed; Masha swings between keen and reticent for no apparent reason, and when she finally packs up and goes to Moscow, Valentin doesn’t seem too bothered about it.
Mirren, however, is wonderful, as she works her way around the house destroying every breakable object. Perhaps another criticism of the script is that Sofya is painted as extremely childish and spoilt for a woman who, in actual fact, gave birth to thirteen children and wrote out War and Peace six times for her husband. I’m not sure which of the two sounds more painful.
The attention to detail isn’t great; some scenes were cut off too early, and accents slipped in places. Also, look out for one of Tolstoy’s apparently more smug sons, who appears in one scene and one scene only. Of Leo and Sofya’s thirteen children, it is only he and the painfully dull Sasha (Duff) whom we get to see.
Aside from the constant fighting, the film has a rather cosy feel, afforded by the fact that it looks as if it is set in a National Trust-owned manor house. The only real nod to Russian culture is the obsessive tea drinking.
It is about love, and adequate enough, so I think that The Last Station will become a prime fodder for the BBC’s daytime schedules on Easter Mondays for many years to come, but I probably won’t watch it when it does.