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'Station' mixes farce and tragedy to fairly good effect
Turfseer12 February 2010
Warning: Spoilers
'The Last Station' focuses on the last year in the life of  Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist.  Toward the end of his life, Tolstoy began promulgating a secular religious philosophy based on the Christian teachings of 'turning the other cheek' and helping one's fellow man.  He advocated pacifism and urged members of the upper class to attend to the needs of the indigent.  A cult-like group of anarchists, The Tolstoyans, headed by Vladimir Chertkov, insinuated themselves into Tolstoy's life and set up a commune of followers near Tolstoy's country estate.  

The plot of 'The Last Station' is relatively simple.  Chertkov hires a young pacifist, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) to work as Tolstoy's secretary but in reality act as his spy.  Valentin is instructed to write down everything the master says and relay all garnered information back to Chertkov.  The Tolstoyans have high and mighty ideals about spreading Tolstoy's message but the leadership are a bunch of prigs, insisting that all members of the commune lead ascetic lives as celibates.  At first Valentin wears his virginity as a badge of honor but soon falls for the free spirited Masha (Kerry Condon), who seduces him. Masha soon grows disillusioned with the 'movement' as she cannot abide by their rigid rules.

Tolstoy appears to be much more open-minded than his followers and laughs at Valentin when he admits that he's a virgin. Nonetheless, it's never really explained in much detail why Tolstoy is attracted to his 'Tolstoyans'. There's some talk about Tolstoy being impressed by Chertkov's ability to get his message out to as many people as possible. By the same token, Tolstoy cannot be unaware that his followers deep down are a bunch of reactionaries.

It's his long-suffering wife, Sofya, who sees through Chertkov and his minions and clashes with her husband about her suspicions that he might be changing his will in favor of his obsessed followers. Her fears are realized when Tolstoy agrees to sign away all his copyrights so that the Russian people can read his books for free. This outrages Sofya, since she was counting on having the family receive the inheritance.

Three quarters of 'The Last Station' is played primarily as a farce. Helen Mirren intentionally serves up an over-the-top performance as Sofya, the overemotional countess, who would probably be diagnosed today as bi-polar. While Sofya correctly sees through Chertkov's machinations, her emotional outbursts end up alienating her husband, who finally has had enough and decides to leave his estate.

The last quarter of the film (the more serious part) chronicles Tolstoy's last days as he ends up the subject of intense media scrutiny. Buoyed by his followers along with his devoted daughter, Tolstoy is given lodging by a kindly stationmaster after disembarking from a train in southern Russia. Meanwhile, Sofya tries to commit suicide by jumping in a pond back at the Tolstoy estate. The suicide attempt fails and she soon learns of Tolstoy's aborted trip and that he's now dying. She races to see her stricken husband but Chertkov and her daughter prevent her from seeing him on his death bed. Finally, as he draws his last breaths, the daughter allows her mother to pay her last respects.

'The Last Station' is most successful in the scenes where Helen Mirren is battling the Tolstoyans. Two scenes come to mind right away: where Sofya falls through the window and rages against Chertkov as they plot to divert the family inheritance; and when Sofya fires a gun multiple times at Chertkov's picture. There's also quite a bit of nice interplay between Plummer and Mirren, as the Tolstoy's love/hate relationship is dissected in high relief.

Paul Giamatti is one of the best American character actors out there today and does a fine job of playing up the comical aspects of the petty tyrant, Chertkov. But Chertkov remains unexplained—does he have any redeeming characteristics or is he a pure villain? (when Giamatti keeps twirling his moustache, we're inclined to believe that he is indeed the principal villain of the piece). James McAvoy doesn't have much to work with in the part of Valentin who's depicted as a Nervous Nellie who eventually (and rather predictably) joins up with Masha and leaves the Tolstoyan cult for good. One thing is for sure: Christopher Plummer can do no wrong as Tolstoy (when is Plummer ever bad in a part?)

'The Last Station' is well written but by no means should it be considered 'high-brow'. The idea that the well-intentioned ideas of a creative man such as Tolstoy could be so easily corrupted by a group of cult-like, anarchistic followers, is never explored seriously. Instead, the film's scenarists are bemused by both Tolstoy's followers and family members and view their machinations more as farce than serious drama. Only in the last scene, where Sofya expresses her undying love for her husband who has just expired, does 'The Last Station' rise to the heights of deep emotion.

'The Last Station' will certainly keep your interest from beginning to end. And please pay attention to the closing credits, where the actual motion pictures of Tolstoy walking around on his country estate, are shown.
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The return of big cinema
Cliff Hanley12 February 2010
The Last Station is described as a melodrama - and I would say that's a fair description. It's the kind of film they don't really make any more. The spirit of David Lean lives on. It's beautiful to look at, for a start, and the music is genuinely incidental, lushing away in the background. We all know that Leo Tolstoy wrote a book, although few of us have the nerve to actually sit down and get to grips with War And Peace. But there was more to the great man than that - in his time he was regarded as godlike, and enjoyed a fairly big cult following, the Tolstoyan Movement, devoted to goodness, purity and equality - as long as it didn't mean the end of the deferential lower classes.

Tolstoy's young secretary Valentin is dropped into this, at the deep end. The 19th century Russian hippies, the fanatically devious disciple Chertkov who wants the great man to sign away the rights to his work, to the Russian People; the hard-pressed but manipulative wife determined to keep it in the family. And the girl who introduces the young man to the pleasures of the flesh. It's a great cast, headed by the unrecognisable Christopher Plummer, and the always marvelous Helen Mirren. The constant undertone in Tolstoy's saga is the disparity between his wish for a good life for the peasants, and the sight of those peasants beavering away in the background while the upper classes get on with their lives of pampered angst.

It's the growing struggle between the disciple and the wife, with the secretary pulled between new and conflicting loyalties, that will grab your attention. You really will care about these people. And what follows is the melodrama. I will say no more, except that it's a big story, told big. Just what Norma Desmond told us we had lost.
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Excellent Historical Drama
J_Trex3 March 2010
This was an excellent historical film based on the relationship between Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) and his wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren), during Tolstoy's final years. The film also explores Tolstoy's relationship with his Assistant, Valentin (James McAvoy) and his cabal of acolytes, lead by Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). The main tension comes between Vladimir, who wants Tolstoy to bequeath his copyrights to "The Russian People" and Sofya, who naturally would like the copyrights reserved for herself and family.

Mirren earned an Oscar nomination for Lead Actress and Plummer received one for Supporting Actor. I believe both were well earned. I liked the performance from the entire cast, particularly McAvoy as the adoring Assistant to Tolstoy. The screenplay was excellent and the Director, Michael Hoffman, did an outstanding job bringing pre-Communist Russia to life. The time period is 1910 and the cinematography beautifully captured the era. During the closing credits, actual film of Tolstoy and his Wife was run, underscoring what a great job the Director did in filming this.

A great movie and well worth seeing or renting.
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Wonderful film, this will go far
jamesdelf14 September 2009
I just saw this at the Telluride Film Festival. It was just fantastic. The story and characters are very well drawn and engaging. Tolstoy is wonderfully presented as a man who is aware he cannot live up to his own ideals. It shows how his image and words are corrupted into the ideals and beliefs of others who have lost their way. The acting, cinematography, costumes, all was superb. It is a film about love. The portray and comparisons of old love and new love. Love of a man and love of an ideology. Well done to all who worked on it. I hope this does not get misunderstood as a dry drama, as it is a very funny and moving film. I cannot wait to see it again.
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A very enjoyable movie
richard-17873 March 2010
There is nothing to fault in this movie, really, and pretty much everything to praise.

The script is very good. The characters are fleshed out and developed in complexity as the movie goes along. You continue to learn more about them, see more facets of their character.

And they are realized by first-rate performances. There is not a weak one in the batch.

The direction is also very fine. There is not really much of a plot here; it's more of a character study. Still, the director keeps things moving along, never veering into the sentimental or the cute. You grow to like these characters a lot, but there is no attempt to yank your emotions.

My only very slight reservation about this movie is just a personal preference. I went into it knowing virtually nothing about Tolstoy's life or the movement that was developed out of his later writings. I would have appreciated a little dialogue somewhere explaining more about that. I realize, however, that that is not the norm in modern movies, and I certainly had no problems following what was going on without it. Viewers such as myself will just have to go read a book about Tolstoy for that additional information, which is certainly not a bad thing.

This is not a film for the ages, a Citizen Kane or a Rules of the Game, a Potemkin or such. Still, it is a very well-crafted movie, one that I could easily watch again with no diminished pleasure. One that, as well, I can recommend to anyone who enjoys good acting and watching interesting characters being developed by and through it.
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This Station is all Clear...
Clayton Davis3 December 2009
If you took a Leo Tolstoy class in college or read one of his works during your time at the library and wanted to know a bit more about the man, don't really look to The Last Station. Does that make it a poor film? Not by a long shot.

The film follows the story of Leo (Christopher Plummer) and Sofya Tolstoy (Helen Mirren), married couple for 43 years, and the battle that raged between them at the end of Leo's life. As Leo's health is ailing, his long time friend Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) urges Leo to write a new will, renouncing his material possessions, leaving his wife and family with nothing. All of this is in order to have Leo's movement of peace to go to the majority. Chertkov sends a young follower of the Tolstoyan movement, Valentin Bulgakov, to investigate and inscribe all of Sofya's exaggerated and histrionic antics to work against her campaign.

Firstly, the film is A-typical period piece with all the correct elements of that type of film. Art Direction by Mark Rosinski and Heike Wolf, stunning costume design by Monika Jacobs, and a score to die for by Sergei Yevtushenko is pitch perfect and exalted brilliance. Nothing is wrong with this film technically.

An extraordinary narrative beautifully adapted by the director Michael Hoffman is one of the crowning achievements of his career. Dedicating his all for the sake of the art form, Hoffman writes and directs the screen with meticulousness and accuracy. Playing that extra special detail to smooth out an rough edges paid off for Hoffman immensely.

The cast presented in The Last Station is stellar and one of the best cast ensembles of the 2009. James McAvoy, proving once again, that you don't just lay down the words of your acting, you let the spirit fight its way through your soul and remain a tangible entity for your audience to engage. McAvoy proves he's one of Hollywood's most outstanding talents. Helen Mirren, riding the see-saw with her viewers, never declares any type of emotion until the bitter end. Mirren shows no apparent ambiance of mood or expression. She sizzles through the film, igniting every scene on fire along the way. Christopher Plummer as the lovable Leo is amiable, captivating, and entrancing. Plummer, a talent long overdue for Oscar recognition is enticing. Paul Giamatti, in a more villainous role we haven't seen of him before, is always dependable and alluring. Anne-Marie Duff and Kerry Condon are both enthralling in their roles respectively.

The Last Station is a definite contender for a Best Picture nomination. It's a delightful film full of heart, love, and heartbreak. The temptation of the films aura will lure you in and surely leave you in tears.

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Excellent cast in a gem of a movie!
bleu_tulips9 March 2010
I've been looking forward to this movie for a while now and finally saw it last night. I thoroughly enjoyed everything about it! The entire cast was excellent; both lead and supporting roles were strong and added such depth to the movie. McAvoy, Mirren, Plummer and Giamatti were especially brilliant in every aspect. They each showed the strengths and weaknesses of the characters they portrayed, and it was a pleasure to see them interact. Although smaller roles, Duff and Condon played significant characters and were also very good in their portrayal. Just an amazing ensemble cast. I was surprised, and saddened, that this movie didn't get more attention; two nominations (Plummer and Mirren) was not nearly enough.

I've heard others say the movie was too slow but I can't say that the pace of the movie bothered me much. I found the story quite interesting and the scenery and costumes added to the movie without being distracting. I would certainly see this emotional and thought-provoking movie again!
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Like Reading People Magazine Instead of War and Peace
Dan1863Sickles9 April 2010
Silly, shallow, sleepy and slow, this sumptuous costume drama about the aging Leo Tolstoy and his long-suffering wife Sophy fails to do several things well.

It fails to give you any insight into why Tolstoy was one of the greatest writers who ever lived. Or why he wanted to give all his money to the poor. Or why he was so desperate to renounce sex. Or how any of this connected to what was actually happening in Russia at the time.

The movie spends hours and hours tittering and giggling over Tolstoy's earthy appetites -- as though it's so extraordinary that older people still enjoy having sex. But we don't get even five minutes of time with the people Tolstoy wants to help -- the Russian peasants. If we can't see them suffering, then Tolstoy's ideas just seem like charming whimsicality. Which is just what this movie wants -- to keep things shallow, so we can celebrate the joys of casual sex (and the gossip and glamor surrounding celebrity couples) and not get all hung up on heavy things like poverty, justice, and human suffering.

One moment sums up the whole problem. Early in the movie, Tolstoy and his wife actually have a rather interesting conversation about the people. Tolstoy says that if they give all their wealth to the peasants the peasants will embrace them as family and they'll all live peacefully in a world without hunger or injustice. Countess Sophy replies tartly that if the peasants ever got their hands on that much money they'd just spend it on whores and drink.

Neither of them brings up a third possibility -- that the peasants HATE them and do not WANT to live in brotherhood. The truth the movie ignores is that sooner or later the peasants will make the beautiful people pay for three hundred years of stealing their food, women, and land. The laziness, corruption, greed, and callousness of the Russian aristocracy -- which the real Count Leo Tolstoy knew only too well -- is entirely absent from this film.

As a result, we entirely miss the real tragedy of a flawed but courageous nobleman trying (too late) to make amends. Instead we get melodrama, sentimentality, and a lot of schoolgirl giggling about sex.

It's like reading PEOPLE magazine instead of War and Peace.
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fizzy and vapid
psyran-116 January 2011
Rather than present at least a GLIMPSE of Tolstoy's brilliance, Christopher Plummer depicts him as a one-dimensional, gruff, lovable old coot. He hardly has any lines throughout the movie, and the other characters are equally devoid of any depth. Helen Mirren's character is supposed to be self-centered and calculating, but even she breaks down into saccharine lightness at the end. The entire film is a descent into maudlin, pretentious sentimentality, and is only atmospheric, not substantive. Instead of being an accurate portrayal of early 1900's Russia, we are given "Russia-lite." We don't have a clue about Tolstoy's inner thoughts and motivations, because we see only an affable geezer. This was a squandered opportunity to reveal the mind of a complicated, social visionary. The director chose cute over interesting.
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disappointing, cheap melodrama
dbeach226 November 2010
I was out of the country when this film came out and so have looked forward a long while to watching it on DVD. What a disappointment. It was nothing but cheap melodrama. I don't know if that's how Jay Parini wrote it or if it was more how Michael Hoffman directed it, but in any case, it too often devolved into sentimentality. I understand that the tensions between Tolstoy, his wife, and the Tolstoyans that the film focused on are a historical fact. They may have been factually, in some instances, also as histrionic as the film represents. I'm quite willing to believe too that the histrionics were as much or more on the side of Chertkov and the Tolstoyans as on Countess Tolstoy's. Still, the portrayal of Chertkov as villain was so melodramatic that it's not an exaggeration to say that we see him twirling his mustache. Tolstoy was many things, but one of them was was the master of the realistic detail. Sorry, none here.
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