The Last Station (2009)

★ ★ ☆ ☆

There are few things more difficult than turning the life of a great novelist into a film. As such, I was not expecting much from The Last Station. Sadly, I got less than I'd bargained for. I expected it to be an interesting biopic, much life you'd see on television. Even by that metric it failed.

It is a real shame to see a film about Tolstoy fall flat. There is so much that one could do with the man's life, but instead the film focused on a copyright battle. His pacifist followers were determined to release his materials into the public domain, to attempt to build his anarchist movement. The director never ceased to remind us of just how important this was. The film begins with an explanation of how important the movement is, and how crucial the copyright issue is to it's success. Unfortunately, it is not at all convincing. While Tolstoy influenced important figures such as Ghandi, and Martin Luther King, his movement never became broadly popular. Tolstoy didn't even seem to care. Had this scenario have been used ironically, it may have been interesting. Unfortunately, director Michael Hoffman seemed to take it more seriously than the author. The plot seemed stitched together; aimless.

An even more serious problem than the plotline was the fact that they even attempted to make a film about Tolstoy in English. Frankly, it is extremely unwise to make any film with English actors playing Russians. Russians have an emotional range, and accompanying mannerisms that do not come easily to non-Russians. Attempts to emulate this usually end up looking ridiculous. Even a talented actor like James McAvoy couldn't pull it off. Christopher Plummer's role didn't quite demand the same reach, and he didn't try to provide it. I'm a huge fan of Paul Giamatti, but I couldn't help but cringe at his accent. Helen Mirren was slightly better, though a tad shrill. I don't fault any of the actors, as they are all fantastic. This just wasn't the project for any of them.

One day I hope that an interesting film about Tolstoy is released. Hopefully the next time around, it is actually made in Russian. There is an obvious temptation to make everything in English, since many people don't want to deal with subtitles. This is just another example of why it's difficult for great films to be popular. Film lovers would rather watch authentic films, made in the proper language. Casual movie goers might not. Given that this was supposed to be an art house film, I'm not quite sure why they didn't give the audience a little more credit.