The Last Station
dir-scr Michael Hoffman
prd Bonnie Arnold, Chris Curling, Jens Meurer
with James McAvoy, Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, Paul Giamatti, Anne-Marie Duff, Kerry Condon, Patrick Kennedy, John Sessions, Tomas Spencer, David Masterson, Maximilian Gartner, Nenad Lucic
release US 4.Dec.09, UK 19.Feb.10
09/UK 1h52
The Last Station
Stealing focus: Mirren and McAvoy

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The Last Station A double love story based on real events from the life of Leo Tolstoy, this period film combines comedy and emotion in a way that's always entertaining, even if it sometimes feels camp and contrived.

Valentin (McAvoy) is a young Tolstoyan in 1910 assigned by the movement's leader Chertkov (Giamatti) to keep an eye on Leo Tolstoy (Plummer) and his sceptical wife Sofya (Mirren). But what Valentin finds is a lively, loving marriage that's strong enough to include opposing views. This isn't good enough for Chertkov, who moves to get Leo to change his will to leave everything to the movement. Which of course enrages Sofya. Meanwhile, Valentin is experiencing his first flush of love with a Tolstoyan commune resident (Condon).

The film often seems like a three-way acting smackdown between Mirren, Plummer and Giamatti. Mirren shreds every scene as the tightly wound Sofya, who erupts with hilariously raw rage at every perceived injustice. Fortunately, Mirren anchors this with vulnerability and real passion. And her scenes with the slightly too-jolly Plummer sparkle with chemistry, while he also manages to give Tolstoy intriguing inner shadings. Less rounded is Giamatti's Chertkov, who literally twirls his moustache as the conniving villain of the piece.

Fortunately, these colourful characters are swirling around the engaging McAvoy as the wide-eyed optimist trying to make sense of the situation while learning much more than he expects about both himself and the world around him. With all of this scene-chewing, Valentin often seems rather bland, and McAvoy plays him with perhaps too much post-modern emoting, but we cling to him simply because he's the calm in the storm. Alas, both Condon and Duff (as the Tolstoys' daughter Sasha) get lost amid all of this heavy thesping.

Hoffman deserves some credit for turning history into romping entertainment, even though he undermines the power of the true-life events in the process. A firmer focus on the Tolstoys, rather than Valentin, would have helped. Because as the story converges on the rural Yasnaya Polyana train station of the title, all of the heightened comedy and melodrama, plus several modern-day touches, tip the movie over into farce just when it should be heartbreaking.

cert 15 themes, language, sexuality, brief violence 21.Oct.09

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