Most people associate the book, War and Peace in the same respects as they do torture. A one thousand, two hundred and twenty five page book that is regarded as one of the most brilliant pieces of historical fiction is a nightmare to most advanced high school and college kids. However, perhaps more fascinating than any single piece of work by Leo Tolstoy is the life in which he lead. Last Station attempts to give us the last few years of the Count’s life in film form.
It is the last year of Leo Tolstoy (played by Christopher Plummer)’s long and prosperous life. He has developed principles that reject private property and advocates passive resistance. Those same principles have led to the birth of the Tolstoyan movement, championed by his disciple, Vladimir Chertkov (played by Paul Giamatti). Chertkov has unfortunately also been placed under house arrest and has no way to keep regular ties with Tolstoy who is in failing health.
Chertkov decides to hire a personal assistant to live with Tolstoy and write down everything he sees. His name is Valentin Bulgakov (played by James McAvoy) and he has some writing accolades of his own which make him adequate for the task. However, he has to contend with a couple of harsh obstacles, one expected and one not so expected.
The first obstacle is Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia Tolstaya (played by Helen Mirren). The Countess Sophia has had thirteen children fathered by her husband and loves him very much. However, she does not prescribe to the Tolstoyan beliefs and does not care for the rock star attitude or Chertkov. She wants to make sure that the rights for the Count’s book do not go to the public domain.
As Valentin is adopting to life at the estate, he comes into contact with a young lady named Masha (played by Kerry Condon). The two become smitten with each other which leads to a romance, something that is frowned upon to some degree at the estate. As the romance reaches new levels, Chertkov is released from house arrest and once again joins Tolstoy at his estate.
Meanwhile, the marriage between the Count and Countess has begun to worsen. Their conflicts between their ideals are put on display and Valentin has to document both sides. Leo Tolstoy is also near death and with each passing moment, he feels the need to rest in peace. Can Valentin put his words together in an honest fashion and at the same time go against typical beliefs by continuing a relationship with the woman he loves?
It’s interesting that what Valentin learns is that Count Leo Tolstoy isn’t a very good Tolstoyan and actually Chertkov is the true leader of the movement (and a master manipulator). The Count just wants some peace to write in his final days and can’t cope with the way that Chertkov and the Countess fight on a daily basis. The picture does this in an impressive fashion thanks to the gifted actors and actresses in this cast.
In particular, Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren provide some of the best performances in recent memory. Paul Giamatti is provides some comic relief in the form of his ever fascinating mustache. James McAvoy is the perfect fodder and go between for the two Tolstoy’s. The only thing that doesn’t make the movie a complete success is some of the direction from director Michael Hoffman.
The humor is plentiful and the jokes are plenty but sometimes it feels like this should have been more serious of a film. I expected Chertkov to be even more villainous, instead he was more worried about the wax on his facial hair. At points, the movie dives into romantic comedy territory and becomes overly sappy. However, these are small complaints in the fantastic performances of the previously mentioned cast.
The video is in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. As expected, this movie is quite beautiful. It was filmed in places like Saxony-Anhalt as well as the German States of Brandenburg, Thuringia, and various historical places in Russia. The color shines through really well and the overall presentation is above average. There are only a few flaws here and there persistent with outdoor camera work.
Audio is presented in English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. As with most period films, I am always worried about dialect and clarity, especially when the movie is going to be mostly conversation. I was delighted to find that the conversation was clear and there was very little lost in translation. Even sound effects like locomotives and chopping wood have depth and make this track a worthy listen. Subtitles are provided for English SDH, French and English.
- Automatic Trailers: Mother and Child, Chloe and Get Low.(the last one has Bill Murray and looks like complete win)
- Commentary with Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren: The two most recognizable stars from the movie get together and provide a commentary. It’s fantastic to hear these two talk about the movie and they really have an amazing chemistry. However, they only talk when either of them is on the screen creating frequent and excessive dead spots. I appreciate heavily that this commentary exists but I would have loved to hear them just swap stories during the dead moments.
- Commentary with Director Michael Hoffman: This stronger commentary features the director. It blends together a lot of historical information along with the obvious technical information overload. Still a few dead spots but a much cleaner listen.
- The Missed Station 7:42: This would be the Last Station’s excuse for the blooper reel. I’ve seen a ton of blooper reels in my time and this is actually one of the best. Some wonderful and candid moments are shown here.
- Deleted Scenes 11:29: A collection of seven deleted scenes including an alternate opening and ending. The alternate opening doesn’t really set the right tone for me since it makes Tolstoy look like some kinda rock star. It is too showy. The rest of the deleted scenes are okay at best but most disturb the flow and add very little to the proceedings.
- A Tribute to Christopher Plummer 18:43: This was filmed at the AFI Fest 2009 and one of the people there is interview Mr. Plummer in a sit-down affair. Very candid and one of the best lines is that he wants to be known as a good actor that does Shakespeare rather than a Shakespearian actor.
- Theatrical Trailer 2:05: The original trailer, the comedy is certainly in focus here.
Comedy in a movie can be a two-edged sword. Most dramatic movies do well with a touch bit of comedy, lightening up the serious tones to provide well deserved breaks in the picture. There are some mighty impressive performances by some of the world’s best actors in the form of Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren. It is easy to see why the Academy decided to award nominations to those two actors.
The disc also does a good job of providing quality blu-ray entertainment. Strong video and audio also compliment a wealth of extras making this a solid disc purchase. I do give this movie a solid recommendation as long as one watches it for the pure entertainment factor. It probably shouldn’t be taken as a serious historical film but one can certainly enjoy it given the correct mindset.