Saturday, March 13, 2010

Love: The Last Station

Going into The Last Station, I thought I knew exactly what I was going to get. Looking at the trailer, it seemed clear that this was one of those movies. You know the ones, designed for the older, richer crowds, all artifice and unbearable sappiness, lacking in anything real yet full of stuffiness. A movie about Tolstoy, in Russia, in which everyone has a British accent or in the case of Paul Giamatti, an overtly fancy American one? Yep, I thought so. I call it a vanilla cupcake movie; perfectly iced and sweet, and boooring. It was, however, a nice exhilarating surprise to find out that this movie was entirely different, an honest, almost giddy examination of love and friendship with performances that prove why Helen Mirren should be, in the words of my college English professor, Dame Helen Mirren.

The Last Station retells the last year in the life of Russian literary genius and libertarian Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) as he struggles to balance his pacifist and non-material beliefs with the love of his firey wife Sofya (Helen Mirren). According to legend, history, or whatever you want to believe is the truth, Tolstoy and Sofya's love was entirely passionate until the end, but also destructive, a balance that few, if any, have ever been able to pull off on screen. Leave it to Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren to present two old people in love and make it sexy as hell, yet also moving and heartbreaking without feeling trite. They let it all go on screen, screaming at each other, making love, crying, burning, aching. It's hard not to believe that they've been in love for over 50 years and can't decide between ripping each other apart or falling down into bed, let alone that Plummer can still act with that intensity without collapsing. It's the kind of love you dream about, the kind that makes every cell of your body burn, but here, director Michael Hoffman exposes both sides: the reality of the ugly side in addition to the incredible passion. Plummer and Mirren's ferocity is exhausting in all the right ways. It kills me that neither was awarded for this performance at this year's Oscars (even though Monique was awesome in Precious, and Cristoph Waltz was amazing, so I'm not sure I could decide between the two).

James McAvoy is similarly impressive, his exuberance and charisma an excellent contrast to the quarrels on screen. He's totally convincing as a young man that grows up in the face of his idol, transforming in that moment when he like so many of us, realizes that the person you want to be may not always be who you think he is. When he falls in love despite his better judgment, it's sweet and sincere in the way that first love ought to be in the face of a love nearing the end of its run. Paul Giamatti's Chertkov is the only meh performance, doing his usual gruff thing, but in the face of such greatness, he just disappears and can be ignored well enough, even if he is the driving force of "evil" in the film.

The strength of this film rests on these incredible performances, but starts to stall towards the middle, more and more frustrating as issues with Tolstoy's will and Chertkov's meddling seem to drag on a bit too long, as does the final few days of Tolstoy's life. Luckily, at this point Mirren, Plummer, and McAvoy have made sure you give a damn, making it impossible for you to look away.

Despite a few nitpicky issues, The Last Station is a collection of some of the best performances to grace the screen in recent years, a strong punch to the gut that manages to say something true and powerful about love and what it does to two people in the grips of it unable to ever let go.

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