In The Last Station, four dimly imagined characters act out the drama surrounding the final days in the life of Leo Tolstoy and, in adherence to the tradition (most recently embodied by Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles) of viewing a historical superstar through the filter of an enthusiastic young follower, Michael Hoffman’s film takes the dimmest of this tetrad as its central figure. As played by James McAvoy, Valentin Bulgakov—who arrives at Tolstoy’s estate to serve as the aged writer’s secretary—is the very embodiment of youthful enthusiasm, but his naiveté and sexual priggishness are so exaggerated that they often verge on the parodic. (He nearly swoons the first time he sees Tolstoy’s writings sitting at his work desk.) Even after a certain maturation, which involves bedding down with a local beauty with whom he immediately decides he’s in love and eventually reconsidering the wisdom of the master’s teachings, he’s still all dopey gravity and grinning stupidity, seemingly too dull a figure to take on the semi-active narrative role he’s soon made to assume.
Drawing on Jay Parini’s novel of the same name, Hoffman’s film is potentially rich in dramatic situation, but it squanders these possibilities by making them dependant on the director’s underimagined central quartet. Unfolding in 1910, the final year of Tolstoy’s life, the film juxtaposes the developing consciousness of Bulgakov with an inheritance struggle between the writer’s wife, the Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren), and the novelist’s ardent follower, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), the latter of whom wants to award the posthumous rights to Tolstoy’s books to the Russian people rather than the writer’s family. The Tolstoy in question here is not the celebrated middle-aged author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but the bearded saint who renounced non-didactic writing and private property and developed a legion of fanatical “Tolstoyans” congregating on his estate. As the most dedicated of these followers, Chertkov may genuinely believe in the ideals espoused by the writer, but—as embodied by Giamatti with arched eyebrows, a curled mustache, and a devil-red goatee—he unfolds as a stock villain, a man determined to situate himself in a position of power and who, finally, becomes so jealous of the writer that he even seeks to ban the novelist’s own wife from his deathbed.
The film hits its rare stride in a handful of scenes between Tolstoy and Sofya, in which Hoffman successfully dramatizes both the love borne of a nearly 60-year marriage and the growing divide between the pair’s current ways of thinking. But as the couple’s final split becomes increasingly inevitable, the Countess dissolves into a round of hysterics and the ruddy self-sufficiency that made her an equal contestant to Chertkov (however ingratiatingly communicated by Mirren), gives way to an easy desperation, climaxing in a half-hearted, and aesthetically dubious, suicide attempt. Christopher Plummer’s Tolstoy is a slightly more interesting proposition; rejecting the doctrinaire approach of his followers, he’s still able to reminisce fondly about sexual affairs, to laugh at himself and to register uncertainties, but he’s a relatively limited player in the proceedings and he’s too often reduced to the role of playing the old coot.
By the time of the film’s protracted finale, in which the writer waits out his final days at a distant railroad station, the narrative momentum—hampered nearly as much by Hoffman’s labored pacing and perfunctory, if generically “pretty,” widescreen framings as by his conception of character—devolves into a waiting game, a deathbed watch that does justice to neither the great writer nor his legacy. The final nail in the coffin comes courtesy of a laughably sentimental death sequence, which is especially insulting to Tolstoy since it trades in such easy emotion where one of the novelist’s great achievements was his forceful and utterly strange treatment of man’s final moments in this world. In the film’s climactic scene, Hoffman refuses to extend the same courtesy to his central subject that the War and Peace writer bestowed on his iconic characters Prince Andrei, Anna Karenina, and Ivan Ilyich. Still, given the project’s far more fundamental problems, this would have to count as one of the least of the filmmaker’s offenses.