They don’t make literary biographies like The Last Station very much anymore. Let’s leave it to individual taste to say whether that particular trend is a good thing. But it’s not difficult to see that director/screenwriter Michael Hoffman’s determinedly old-fashioned account of the last days of 19th-century Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace, runs against the grain of 21st-century art films.
In telling the story of the rich, famous, and irascible Count Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), his wife and frequent combatant Sofya Tolstoy (Helen Mirren), and their bitter fight over the ailing count’s estate, circa 1910, filmmaker Hoffman — adapting the novel by Jay Parini — doesn’t spend much time messing with flashbacks, re-enactments of scenes from Anna Karenina, fanciful psychodramas about the author’s proclivities, or other tools of the 21st-century Coffee Table Film trade. Hoffman’s peek into the writer’s home life has more in common with an MGM bio from the 1940s than with, say, Bright Star, Jane Campion’s 2009 bodice-ripping tribute to poet John Keats. The Last Station plunges into the aged Tolstoy’s life — plop! — and moves forward in a straight line.
James McAvoy costars as Valentin Bulgakov, a diffident young man essentially hired by Tolstoy’s confidante, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamattti), to spy on the Tolstoys and help smooth the anticipated upcoming transition. When the revered old author finally dies, Chertkov wants to be named executor of the estate and thus owner of Tolstoy’s legacy. Valentin is a prissy prig as well as a star-struck sycophant. When he arrives at the author’s Telyatinki commune in the forest for the summer “health retreat,” his most frequent mannerism is to sneeze nervously whenever confronted with something that puzzles him. Everything puzzles him.
McAvoy was effective in controlled doses as the docile working-class foil in Atonement, but his puppyish face proves distracting in the one-upping literary salon, where scribes write down everything anybody says and cut each other to pieces. One hanger-on even describes another as “a fat little catamite.” Was the camp of Russia’s greatest author really such a nest of bitches?
In the schemer Chertkov, we find another of actor Giamatti’s terrier-dog roles — he clamps onto a proposition and worries it to death, glowering conspiratorially and over-enunciating. With this film and the 2009 drama Cold Souls, Giamatti seems to be in the midst of his Russian period — he’s like a grilled ham steak smothered in sour cream. Chertkov bows and scrapes in front of Tolstoy, but left alone he’s always maneuvering for the upper hand, and his plots are perfectly transparent.
Also on hand at Telyatinki is Masha (played by Irish actor Kerry Condon), a young and attractive woman whose initial function in the drama is to help nervous Valentin break the ice with a tussle in the sack. But Masha apparently wants out of Tolstoy’s free-thinking, pacifist-populist movement. She’s too headstrong to follow even a cultural genius — revolution beckons. With these players in place, The Last Station seems little more than a behind-the-scenes literary potboiler, full of grandiose gestures and hammy histrionics, about the family disagreements of a brooding man of letters.
But then we actually meet the old man and his wife. All by themselves, 80-year old Plummer and 65-year-old Mirren light up the film and make us forget about the other characters. Plummer growls and grovels, pirouettes and pontificates, dances circles around everyone and then suddenly dissolves into a puddle of senility. What a display. Think of his Tolstoy as a companion piece to his Doctor Parnassus, a pair of all-too-fragile immortals who have conquered the world and yet find it hard to get through the day.
Meanwhile, Mirren’s Countess Sofya, fearful of being disinherited, resorts to bickering and tantrums even more elaborate than Tolstoy’s. She commandeers the movie and really never relinquishes it. After a few scenes of Leo and Sofya’s goblet smashing, we realize we’re watching a couple of frisky old folks in love, and that they’re more entertaining between them than the scenery and salon squabbles. Hysterics are an important part of their relationship — their way of relating to each other and drowning out their surroundings. Mirren, always a muse of sensuality, is the sexiest sexagenarian anyone could imagine. Their battles make the film, and when the family finally decamps by train for the remote town of Astapovo, “the last station,” it’s a genuine shame things are winding down. For nothing more than Plummer and Mirren’s ruffled feathers and tattered plumage, filmmaker Hoffman’s high-flown excursion into Russian lit makes us believe once again in the power of personality.
Here’s a false syllogism: If Plummer and Mirren are fine actors of a certain age, and if their appearance in The Last Station makes that a good movie, then the appearance of five or six fine actors of a certain age in Malcolm Venville’s 44 Inch Chest should therefore make that a good movie as well — in fact, by that logic, two or three times better than The Last Station, on account of having two or three times the number of celebrated old-school thespians.
Nope. Despite the presence of a strong poker hand of veteran English male character actors — Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Ian McShane, Tom Wilkinson, and Stephen Dillane — plus the reliable Joanne Whalley, 44 Inch Chest is as much fun as a hernia.
Imagine a perverse rerun of The Bucket List for aging cockney hard guys, combining the most annoying parts of Reservoir Dogs, Husbands, and any random Guy Ritchie flick, into the story of a man deserted by his wife, whose pals gather to help him take revenge on the bloke wot stole her. The wronged party, Colin (Winstone), is left drunk as a skunk in the ruins of his swank pad after wife Liz (Whalley) has run off. Regaining his wits with the help of his assembled mates, Colin yearns to put a similar hurt, with embellishments, on the offending restaurant waiter (Melvil Poupaud). Colin’s pals Archie (Wilkinson), Meredith (McShane), Old Man Peanut (Hurt, never saltier), and Mal (Dillane) egg him on in no uncertain terms. Ninety-four minutes of stagey locker-room philosophizing. Sets a record for use of the word “cunt.”
Each of the characters exemplifies a different stereotype of male behavior, none of them very interesting. Filmmaker Venville and writers Louis Mellis and David Scinto have been watching too much Tarantino, Cassavetes, Ritchie, Scorsese, et al. David Mamet can relax, however — he’s off the hook for this one.