Sunday, 14 March 2010

Cinema: Review of 'The Last Station'

I was hoping to begin this review with a celebration of Helen Mirren's Oscar winning performance as Countess Sofya Tolstaya in 'The Last Station'. The Hollywood machine being what it is, I can't even give you the consolation that  Carey Mulligan picked up the award for her charming lead in 'An Education'. Instead, the Hollywood Machine gave us Sandra Bullock  who has appeared in forty odd movies, none of which I've seen, and I catch a film most weeks, sometimes two. Make of that what you will.

Instead, I'll start by telling you that Helen Mirren was born Ilyena Vasilievna Mironov, the granddaughter of a Russian tsarist nobleman. So for those of you who consider the Dame quintessentially English, think again - blue vodka runs through her veins. Her father changed his name to Basil and was a cab driver, driving test examiner and civil servant in the Ministry of Transport and her mother was the thirteenth daughter of a West Ham butcher, so her cockney credentials are also strong.

As is her performance in this depiction of Leo Tolstoy's last year, told through the eyes of his male secretary played by James McAvoy who made 'The Last King of Scotland' but despite screen time, is peripheral here when up against Mirren, whose performance is operatic in scope and emotion -  and Christopher Plummer - 90% Lear, 10% Fool as Tolstoy himself. Next to the grand passion of these two old timers, the love of the young is  an occasional distraction.

The birch woods and long grass of a Russian summer  make a fine setting for the drama whose three acts focus on a Tolstoyan commune, the family estate and the station where he dies on the way from there to who knows where, escaping his wife and the conflict at the heart of the movie - the obligations of family, property and marriage against those of community, principle and fraternity. Tolstoy wants to leave the royalties from his books to his anarchist, christian, pacifist, communitarian movement. His wife wants it for herself and family, to keep them in the lifestyle to which she's like to become accustomed, and given she hand wrote 'War and Peace' six times and bore the old goat thirteen children, you might say she deserved a say in the matter.

Stay for the credits to catch snippets of Tolstoy himself filmed in 1910 and think for a few moments on what a long hundred years it's been, for since we've had two world wars, the rise and fall of Soviet communism, and the slow decline of the novel since it reached its height around the turn of the century. 

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