Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Tolstoys: The Last Station

A wife fights to maintain control of her husband’s intellectual property rights. A famous writer is financially manipulated by a cult-like group of utopians. Though the year is 1910 and the place is late Czarist Russia, the events of Leo Tolstoy’s final days have an odd resonance in today’s world. While Tolstoy was indeed the great Russian novelist, he was also a husband and father. It is his tempestuous but loving relationship with his wife, the Countess Sophia Andreyevna Tolstaya, that is the focus of director-screenwriter Michael Hoffman’s historical drama, The Last Station (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York and Los Angeles for one Oscar-qualifying week only, but returning soon on January 15th.

She has born Tolstoy thirteen children and hand-copied War and Peace six times. Nobody has been more dedicated to Tolstoy than his wife the Countess, yet she refuses to blindly adopt the tenets of his radically ascetic Christianity, particularly the renunciation of private property rights. Though Tolstoy also now advocates celibacy, she has better luck getting him to fudge that one.

Despite nearly fifty years of marriage, the Countess is apparently outmatched by his spiritual protégé, Vladimir Chertkov, the leader of the Tolstoyans. His driving ambition is to have Tolstoy sign over the rights to his novels to the Scientologists Tolstoyans, so they can supposedly keep his works affordable and accessible to the general public. However, the Countess, sixteen years her husband’s junior, has to consider her own future. Into this fray, Chertkov sends Valentin, an earnest, fresh-faced young Tolstoyan ostensibly to act as the Count’s secretary, but really to act as his eyes and ears in the Tolstoy estate. (He is also the focus of a romantic subplot that frankly gets a bit tiresome.)

Helen Mirren has been widely touted as a potential award winner for her performance as Tolstoy’s long-suffering wife, and given the state of the field, she probably should start considering her acceptance speeches. She is terrific as the harried Countess, who tenaciously holds onto her love for Tolstoy regardless of his eccentricities and betrayals. Christopher Plummer certainly has the right physical presence as the self-appointed prophet, also bringing a sense of dignity and playfulness to the iconic figure. Paul Giamatti, the American ringer of the predominantly British cast, actually bears a strong resemblance to the historical Chertkov, and is clearly quite comfortable playing the scheming Svengali.

Oddly, most of the Russians associated with Station were working behind the camera rather than in front of it. Most notably, that includes the celebrated Russian screenwriter-director Andrei Konchalovsky (whose Russian films include the towering Siberiade), who served as co-executive producer. Though Hoffman has an eclectic filmography, the American director seems to have a nice touch with British and continental historical fare, having previously helmed an adaptation of Rose Tremain’s Restoration with Robert Downey, Jr. Again, he keeps the drama moving along, while soaking in the period ambiance.

It is a bit strange to see such a Russian story without any Russian actors, though Giamatti definitely has a distinctly Russo look. Still, it is certainly an accomplished cast, well attuned to classical-historical material, with Mirren delivering an Oscar caliber performance. While there is a bit too much of innocent young Valentin finding his way in the world, Station is still a good looking, imminently respectable prestige picture. It opens (temporarily) this Friday (12/4).