The Last Station
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Program Length: 113 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 1080p
Languages: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA
Subtitles: English SDH, English, French
I’m a vegetarian. I am celibate. I’m also a vegetarian. – Valentin Bulgakov, nervously interviewing for the position of Leo Tolstoy’s personal secretary
Leo Tolstoy, the author of the classic novels “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina,” was toward the end of his life perhaps the most famous writer then living. In his native Russia he was perhaps the most famous man then living, with the possible exception Czar Nicholas. Tolstoy’s final months are chronicled in The Last Station, directed by Michael Hoffmann and based upon the novel of the same name by Jay Parini.
It is 1910, and the 82-year-old Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) has retired from writing fiction. However, he has not retired from writing. As he grew older, he evolved into what has been described as a “Christian anarchist,” and his radical views (he disliked the concept of private property, he believed that injustice should be fought with passive resistance, and he rather hypocritically advocated that his followers practice celibacy) led to the formation of a cult-like group of disciples known as Tolstoyans. Led by Tolstoy’s close friend, Vladimir Chertkoff (Paul Giamatti), the Tolstoyans are ahead of their time, living a simple communal life on the writer’s vast estate. Tolstoy’s philosophical renunciation of wealth and property has strained his marriage to the Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren), who fears that her husband is being manipulated by Chertkoff to surrender his copyrights and give away his literary works to the Russian people.
As the film opens Chertkoff is under house arrest in Moscow. Tolstoy had been excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church because of his pacifist views, and Chertkoff’s leadership of the Tolstoyans and his advocacy of passive resistance has caused him to be viewed as a threat to imperial Russia. Concerned that the Countess is trying to thwart his plans, Chertkoff hires a young Tolstoyan named Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) to be Tolstoy’s personal secretary. As a condition of his employment, Bulgakov promises to keep a diary and report back to Chertkoff on everything he sees and hears while he is at Tolstoy’s estate.
Bulgakov’s pledge to remain celibate is tested when he arrives at the Tolstoyan commune and meets Masha (Kerry Condon), a beautiful free spirit who is more concerned with freedom than following rules. Bulgakov soon discovers that the life of the Tolstoy family is an open book. These are cultured people, but also people who wear their opinions and emotions on their sleeves. The Countess despises Chertkoff, who has supplanted her as the most important person in Tolstoy’s life. Indeed, Tolstoy had replaced a photograph of his wife with one of of him and Chertkoff on the wall above his desk. The Countess worries, not without reason, that if Tolstoy gives away his copyrights she and their children could be left destitute. Of the living children, only Sasha (Ann-Marie Duff) has embraced the Tolstoyan philosophy. When Chertkoff is released from house arrest and shows up at the estate, the arguments between Tolstoy and the Countess reach a boiling point.
The story is told largely from the point of view of the secretary, Bulgakov, but the film is carried by the very impressive, Oscar-nominated performances of Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren. Both actors clearly relish their roles and they dominate every scene in which they appear. The are ably assisted by Paul Giamatti, whose Chertkoff comes across as enigmatic. Does he really have the best interest of Tolstoy and the Russian people at heart, or is there some self-aggrandizement at play? In the middle of it all is Bulgakov, who clearly is devoted to Tolstoy but who finds himself increasingly sympathetic toward the Countess. A tug-of-war develops as the Countess desperately tried to influence her husband’s decisions, while Chertkoff does everything he can to keep her at bay. James McAvoy is perfectly suited to the role of Bulgakov, and Kerry Condon is charming as Masha. An equally strong performance is turned in by Ann-Marie Duff, whose tightly-wound Sasha is forced to choose which of her parents to support.
I was of course familiar with Tolstoy before viewing this film, but afterwards I realized that I actually knew relatively little about his life. I came away from The Last Station wanting to learn more, which really is what any good biopic should do. It is a compelling drama about the end of a great man's life, and it features some of the cinema’s finest actors doing some of their best work.
The Last Station was largely filmed on location in Russia, and the pastoral settings of the Russian countryside are well served by this Blu-ray transfer. There is some softness in the images, but this appears to be an artistic choice by the filmmakers rather than a transfer anomaly. The 2.35:1 1080p picture has retained a moderate and appropriate level of film grain, giving it a very pleasing and film-like appearance. Colors are solid and accurate, black levels are deep and shadow detail is very good. The lighting of the indoor scenes tends to be on the subdued side, which is undoubtedly an accurate representation of how it would have looked in 1910. This is another fine Blu-ray from Sony.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is not spectacular, but it is excellent in every respect. There is little for a subwoofer to do, but the surround channels are effectively utilized to convey realistic ambient sounds. The dialogue is mostly confined to the center channels and it is clear and understandable. Particular note must be made of the evocative music soundtrack by composer Sergei Yevtushenko. The score plays a critical role is establishing mood and feeling, and the Blu-ray beautifully reproduces the music.
The extras on this Blu-ray disc are interesting but relatively modest. There are many insights to be gleaned from a commentary track recorded by Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, although there are lengthy stretches when they say nothing at all because they confine their comments to those scenes in which they appear. They have high praise for their fellow actors and they both were disappointed when they discovered that the original opening sequence (available as a deleted scene) was cut from the film. There is a second, more traditional commentary track by director Michael Hoffman.
An interview with Christopher Plummer which was filmed prior to a screening of The Last Station includes some amusing stories about his acting career. Several deleted scenes are available, including the original opening scene which was designed to establish the extent of Tolstoy’s fame. A series of blooper outtakes is somewhat amusing, particularly if you enjoy watching actors of this stature drop f-bombs when they blow their lines.
Also included is the original theatrical trailer, as well as trailers for Mother and Child, Chloe, Get Low, Mimacs, The Runaways, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, The White Ribbon, A Prophet, The Secret in Their Eyes, and Please Give.
Movie IQ and BD-Live features will be available on the release date.
The single disc comes in a standard Blu-ray keep case.
The Final Analysis
The Last Station is an accomplished biopic which thankfully has managed to avoid straying very far from the historical record. As a period drama it is a pleasure to view, but the film’s greatest appeal comes from the opportunity to watch superb actors at the top of their games.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic DMP-BD50 Blu-ray player
Panasonic Viera TC-P46G15 Plasma display, calibrated to THX specifications by Gregg Loewen
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Release Date: June 22, 2010