Film review – The Last Station (2009)

Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) and Sofya Tolstaya (Helen Mirren)

Towards the end of his life the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace, Anna Karenina) was under considerable pressure from his Tolstoyan followers to reject his wealth and surrender the copyright of his works. Tolstoy’s aristocratic wife Sofya was deeply opposed to the Tolstoyans whom she believed were pressuring Tolstoy to remove her from his will.

Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy and Helen Mirren as Sofya were both nominated for acting Oscars and they do a fine job at conveying a tender love that persists despite huge political and ideological differences. Paul Giamatti and James McAvoy are also terrific as two Tolstoyans with McAvoy playing the film’s lead character Valentin Bulgakov, Tolstoy’s new secretary whose loyalties are torn.

The Last Station is about a heavyweight of Russian literature from a century ago but it resembles a lightweight Merchant-Ivory period romp. Most of the film is a frothy lark about the conflict between the head and the heart with none of the characters or scenarios carrying any weight until the film’s morose and dragged out ending. Despite its strong performances The Last Station is a bland and middle-of-the-road period film with faint literary pretensions.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 351, 2010

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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