Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, James McAvoy, Kerry Condon, Paul Giamatti, Anne-Marie Duff
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
Commentary with Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren
Commentary with Director Michael Hoffman
The Missed Station Outakes
A Tribute to Christopher Plummer
In 2007, vastly under-appreciated actor Christopher Plummer burst back into critical acclaim with a little seen yet highly acclaimed performance in Man in the Chair, a low-budget indie flick that enjoyed a festival tour and light arthouse run largely on the strength of Plummer's delightful performance. Since that performance, which one could hardly call a comeback given that Plummer really has never left, Plummer has seemingly exploded back onto the Hollywood scene with praised performances in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus and in this year's likely Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature, Up. His performance in The Last Station, however, is proof positive of the actor's cinematic greatness. Simultaneously managing to capture Tolstoy's larger than life greatness and his intimate frailty, Plummer would likely find himself recognized by the Academy if not for an equally amazing performance by the equally beloved Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart.
Written and directed by Michael Hoffman (Game 6, The Emperor's Club), The Last Station may very well be the crowning achievement of Hoffman's career. Capturing the final days in the life of Russian literary icon Leo Tolstoy, The Last Station weaves its way around the source material of novelist Jary Parini beginning in 1910 when a young devotee, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), is hired as Tolstoy's personal secretary for a growing Tolstoyan movement based upon Tolstoy's writings guided by Tolstoy himself (Plummer) and the movement's designated leader, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). None of this sits well with Tolstoy's wife of 48 years, Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren) and Valentin quickly finds himself in the midst of a utopia divided by personal and ideological differences.
Eloquently putting on display a writer who, at least in Parini's eyes, may very well have been one of literature's first true media darlings, The Last Station both works and, on occasion, flails about because of writer/director Michael Hoffman's ability to capture both the serene and the insane in Tolstoy's world. Plummer's Tolstoy is a man who struggles to balance the simplicity of his vision with his fierce dedication to his followers and his equally fierce passion for his wife and family. He is a man both at peace and yet wrestling with his own rich humanity, a struggle that Plummer projects with magnificence and grace.
In order to truly work, The Last Station requires a pawn, an innocent if you will, who is too naive to be corrupted and too disciplined to be diverted away from his ideals. As Valentin, James McAvoy embodies a young man whose embracing of the Tolstoyan movement is genuine and, as well, so is his surrender to an unexpected experience of love with a vibrant member (Kerry Condon) of the intentional community where he is housed. There is a sweet playfulness between Valentin and Masha, his new love, and even as this experience clearly falls outside their belief system it feels so deeply authentic that it is completely understandable why these two Tolstoyans must surrender to it.
It would have been rather simple for Hoffman to have painted The Last Station with broad strokes, one side being clearly wrong and the other being of pure heart. Wisely, The Last Station is more a reflection of how the real world works in that both the Tolstoyans and Countess Sofya are portrayed as being guided by a genuineness grounded upon sincerity without malice. Perhaps the closest thing The Last Station has to a traditional bad guy, Paul Giamatti's Chertkov is so multi-layered that it is constantly difficult to discern whether or not he is guided by his own selfish interests, personal agendas or some other ulterior motive. Giamatti's performance seems simple and yet is quite risky in that Giamatti creates a character without deciding who his character is really meant to be. Instead, he allows the words and the actions of Chertkov to speak for themselves and, as a result, the audience must ultimately decide just who is this man named Chertkov who so fervently embraces unheard of ideals that conflict with the Countess.
While it is Plummer's performance that is the true standout here, enough cannot be said about that of Helen Mirren. As the long-suffering yet boundlessly passionate Countess Sofya, Mirren turns a character who seemingly explodes in every other scene into a genuinely sympathetic, warm and intensely loving woman whose rages are guided by the inner rages of her love for this man and her family.
A German-Russian partnership, production credits are solid across the board for The Last Station including Sebastian Edschmid's layered, magnificent cinematography and the production design of Patrizia von Brandenstein. It is a fine testimony to the power of Hoffman's written dialogue that even as the critic's screening for The Last Station was interrupted by an unexpected building alarm a mere 20 minutes shy of film's end, once the film began again the tears began rolling as the film came to a close.
With The Last Station, writer/director Michael Hoffman has created his calling card, a film vibrant and sensuous and energetic and one that truly fills every inch of the movie screen with heart and passion and intelligence and brilliance. With unforgettable performances from all involved, The Last Station is the kind of film that commands you to visit your local arthouse theatre and watch true acting greats at work.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic