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Mystery Train

“The Last Station” struggles to find the right tone.



If “The Last Station” suggests nothing else, hiring Leo Tolstoy as script doctor wouldn't have made “Valentine's Day” any funnier. “You don't need a husband,” the great Russian novelist (Christopher Plummer) bellows at his demonstrative wife, Countess Sofya Andreyevna (Helen Mirren), midway through the sometimes painfully droll movie, “you need a Greek chorus!”

In 1990 the prolific writer Jay Parini turned the details of Tolstoy's late personal life into a historical fiction about the literary figure's struggle with legacy and family. Twenty years later the material has been updated by writer-director Michael Hoffman (“The Emperor's Club”) into something you might call historical dramedy, genial but stiff bedroom farce that eventually tumbles into a tepid pool of melodrama while telling a tale of two loves: one between the aging Tolstoy and his wife, and the other between two of Tolstoy's young followers.

The follower of note is Tolstoy's new assistant, Valentin (James McAvoy), a personal secretary so filled with the zeal of Tolstoyanism — here depicted as a mild-mannered, abstinence-promoting, proto-hippy cult — he doesn't realize he's been employed by Tolstoy's overprotective manager, Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), mainly to serve as a spy. The countess wants to make sure her aging husband leaves his royalties to his family, while Chertkov wants all copyrights released to the public in order to protect the old man's image. Valentin mostly stands around as an audience surrogate observing this tug of war on his hero, occasionally taking time to deal with his own romantic difficulties.

The action is set in and around Yasnaya Polyana, the rural Russian estate Tolstoy called home, where such works as “The Kingdom of God Is Within You” inspired followers to form a commune. The setting is verdant and peaceful, with frequent wide shots showing off the Tolstoy digs as a lush, pastoral dream. Pacifist Tolstoyans come and go in the background, chopping logs and toting things while we dart among the movie's preoccupations. The cast is as appealing to look at as the setting, with Mirren especially vibrant as the anxiety-driven countess, exhibiting an age-defying vitality that's envious if misused.

Mirren fairly rattles the rafters with histrionics, but to be fair, Hoffman is directing as if he were doing dinner theater. No one comes off at his or her best, not even the usually tightly self-controlled Giamatti. As the countess fusses and fumes, Chertkov darts his eyes and twists his mustache, but whether either figure's characteristics are indications of intent I'm not sure. I'm not sure the movie is sure, either. There's a difference between being ambiguous and ambivalent, and “The Last Station” errs on the latter.

When the young Valentin arrives on the estate, for example, Tolstoy is quick to confess that he himself is not a very good Tolstoyan, but we don't get to witness much unTolstoyan behavior from the twinkly-eyed fuss bucket, at least not beyond some rich meals and matrimonial cuddling. What does he believe in? Plummer, as with Mirren nominated for an Oscar for his work, plays Lev Nikolayevich like a kindly old wizard, a Russian Santa Claus ho-ho-hoing when he's not woe-woe-woeing at his wife's paranoid badgering. There's even a lengthy scene in which he doles out gifts to a line of mop-headed children. The signing of a will makes the genius out to be a timid and indecisive old coot.

Admittedly, estate planning doesn't lend itself easily to comedy or drama. While it's potentially interesting to find this champion of celibacy had a long, robust and occasionally strife-torn marriage, “The Last Station” fails to convince why that matters beyond the scope of two members of his more antagonistic inner circle. But it's the movie's broad, haphazard tone that gets it in the most trouble, leaving the viewer as unprepared and confused as the movie for its last-act lurch into mourning.

“If I had a wife like you I would have blown my brains out, or moved to America,” a red-faced Chertkov shouts at the desperate, irrational countess. It's fairly clear the line is supposed to prompt at least a little chuckle. Unfortunately not every moment is as easily deciphered. At the last station of the title, Tolstoy exclaims to his doctor, “your enemas have become the news of the world!” If you're still paying attention by then, you'll have noticed “The Last Station” missed a stop or two somewhere along the way. (R) 112 min. HHIII