When discussing a film, it's important to consider it in context, such as its intended audience. While The Last Station is no doubt a well-made film, I'm not part of the target audience, so I'll find myself pointing out the things that didn't work for me. The target audience is the demographic that flock to historic, epic, melodramatic films at places like the Como and Nova, usually middle-class and middle-aged. The Last Station is not epic, does tend towards melodrama but is clearly historic and for me, that's the most intriguing aspect.
Leo Tolstoy is, of course, the famous author of War and Peace (which I remember my mother reading when I was a child) and Anna Karenina. I've read neither, though this film will no doubt inspire a wave of sales of books by the author.
The film's story unfolds as a new secretary, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), an ardent admirer of the great Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) is despatched to the author's country estate where he lives with his wife Sofya (Helen Mirren), children, servants and followers. Plummer and Mirren are, of course, competent actors and they each do an admirable job. Perhaps it's because they are so well-known, but for me they never fully inhabit their characters. My favourite character is Masha, a spunky free-spirit played by Kerry Condon. She breathes the most life into the film, though we don't see enough of her.
The real problem is McAvoy's character. The whole story is revealed from his perspective so, structurally he is our tour guide through the film. I've always found McAvoy a weak actor and a one-trick pony. He plays pretty much the same role, whether it's this film, Atonement or The Last King of Scotland (the similarities with this latter film are striking). He has a naivete about him that always rings false for me. It's a contrivance of character as a clunky device to reveal the story in a particular (hackneyed) manner. I find him quite irritating at times.
Another weakness of the film for me is its overt British sensibility. It was apparently shot on location, but for all an audience knows, it could have been filmed in the British country-side. The only indications that it is a Russian story is the mode of dress, and road signs and newspapers in Russian script. Everything else is so staid, so-o-o-o damn British. That everyone (including Plummer and Giamatti as Vladimir Chertkov) also use British accents isn't a problem per se (though Giamatti's occasional introduction of a light Russian accent from time to time is distracting). No, it's not the accents - it's the British staidness that is so common in period films. The French are adept at period depictions, and the British might be OK at British period, but Russian period à la Britain just doesn't work for me. It's like we never really penetrate or involve ourselves in that moment. But I doubt this will be a problem for the target audience.
[Edit: I've been thinking about the film and decided to add the following]
The film lacks subtlety, and here's some examples:
- It wasn't enough to be told that Tolstoy's various assistants record everything about his waking life. We not only see this frequently, but whenever we do, we also hear the scratching of quill on paper in a magnified fashion.
- We are introduced to the device of Valentin sneezing whenever he feels nervous. So guess what, whenever he is nervous, he sneezes, his nervousness is amplified (in case we don't make the connection) and often someone makes a comment about he must be nervous. OK, I get it already!
- Characters tell us what we're going to see. Hey, cinema is a visual art - we can see what's going on without being told. Give the audience some credit.
- I've mentioned McAvoy's earnestness. At times he heaves with his breathing, or looks about wide-eyed. Tolstoy describes him as "a better Tolstoy than I am" to point out his fervour. All these devices heavily underscore Valentin's transformation from a naive puritan to a more open-minded person, without trusting that the audience will get it without heavy-handed sign-posting.
The Last Station opens on 1 April