In Theaters: The Last Station

Movieline Score:

Turning a fabulously operatic, thematically replete true-life tale into a frosted slice of dinner theatrics, The Last Station conveys nothing more convincingly than its own self-regard. The story of Leo Tolstoy's last days, in exile from his own home, his wife, and possibly the social movement he spearheaded toward the end of his life, rivals any the great novelist could have dreamt up for himself. And yet The Last Station, adapted from Jay Parini's 1990 book by writer/director Michael Hoffman, seems to have been mounted by everyone involved like it was their own private troika -- a period vehicle which might carry them to award glory, or the set of their next self-regarding costume piece.

Serious questions about the life and death of Tolstoy, whom no less a humanist than Anton Chekhov called "a perfect man" -- his gifts, his beliefs, his marriage and professional relationships--are merely chipped about on the lawn of Yasnaya Polyana, seemingly without aim or purpose. With so little narrative authority at hand, it seems, the actors easily overtook the asylum.

James McAvoy is the first if not the chief offender. Revisiting the role of the young ingénue awed, overcome, and then bitterly educated by his proximity to a powerful man (which first brought him to prominence in The Last King of Scotland, where he played the doctor to Forest Whitaker's Idi Amin), McAvoy here plays Valentin Bulgakov, a 23-year-old aspiring to join the "Tolstoyan" movement. Founded as a system that combined passive resistance with socialist ideals, a dash of morbidity and strict personal asceticism, Tolstoyism captured the mood and the loyalty of a small cache of Russians (in 1910, a series of stark inter-titles inform us, some regarded the novelist as a living saint), which occasionally included Tolstoy himself.


Valentin enters the Tolstoyan compound (located close to Tolstoy's estate) all a-quiver at the prospect of becoming a secretary to the great man, and because Hoffman prefers to express in three scenes what could be well established in one, McAvoy quivers plenty. (This makes for a tiresome, tell-don't-show progression: If "He's leaving!" are the first words of one scene, you can be sure that "He's gone?" will be the first of the next.)

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