Friday 23 February 2018

Movies: The Last Station * * * *


Paul Whitington

At the very end of his life, Count Leo Tolstoy left the cosy confines of his Yasnaya Polyana estate and embarked on a mad cross-country flight from his wife, his property, his responsibilities and possibly death itself, which finally caught up with him at an obscure rural railway station called Astapovo.

This drama, based on a biographical novel by Jay Parini, tells the story of this dramatic last chapter in the great Russian novelist's life.

In the summer of 1910, Leo Tolstoy was an international superstar. He was considered the greatest living writer and the figurehead of a political movement advocating a kind of non-violent Christian communism, if such a thing can be imagined.

Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) is one such Tolstoyian acolyte, and is overjoyed when the movement's leader Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) sends him out to Yasnaya Polyana to become the great man's personal secretary.

Chertkov, though, has an ulterior motive: he wants Valentin to spy for him, and report on the machinations of Tolstoy's wife Sofya (Helen Mirren), who hates the Tolstoyian movement and cordially detests Chertkov.

Valentin, a young fanatic --or so he thinks -- is happy to play along.

But when he actually meets Sofya, he is charmed by her, and begins to see things from her point of view.

Indeed, nothing seems simple at Yasnaya Polyana.

Tolstoy himself seems to find the political movement wearying, and even remarks to the young Valentin that "Chertkov is a better Tolstoyian than I am".

But as tension grows between Soyfa and her husband about Chertkov's plan to get him to renounce all his wealth, a bitter disagreement erupts.

Written and directed by Michael Hoffman, The Last Station is a really delightful little film that approaches its subject in a warm, humorous and refreshingly unsanctimonious fashion.

Christopher Plummer has the gravitas to make a convincing Tolstoy, while Giammatti is good as the scheming Chertkov, and Irish actress Kerry Condon also shines as Valentin's girlfriend.

But the film belongs, surprise, surprise, to Helen Mirren, who commands the stage as the mercurial, histrionic, melodramatic but entirely devoted Countess.

Irish Independent

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