Friday, January 29, 2010

Helen Mirren's Thrilling Countess: The Last Station

The Last Station is not a great movie by any means but Helen Mirren’s performance as writer Leo Tolstoy’s wife, the mercurial Countess Sofya, is certainly great acting. It’s also a timely reminder that sometimes it’s the acting alone that makes a film worthwhile.

As the film begins, in the early 20th century, Sofya, who has been married to Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) for nearly fifty years, is warring with writer Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who as Tolstoy’s secretary, has become the writer’s premiere acolyte. Devout followers of Tolstoy, Chertkov and many others call themselves Tolstoyans, and influenced by Leo Tolstoy’s writings, espouse vegetarianism, the sacredness of all life and advocate for a world free of war. Sofya doesn't buy into any of the Tolstoyans’ new age beliefs, nor does she even concede that they bear any relation to anything her husband, who is widely known for his novels Anna Karenina and War and Peace, has ever written. More significantly, she is convinced that Chertkov is pressuring Tolstoy to change his will so that his royalties will go the Russian people and not to her and her children. Her fear of losing the family mansion and not having anything to live on, after Tolstoy dies, sends her on a trajectory of rage, hysteria, duplicity and finally a nervous breakdown, even as her worst fears come to fruition.

The Last Station is mainly about the strong, emotional bonds between the Tolstoys, which is both its strength – Plummer, who is fine in a largely reactive role, and Mirren make you fully believe that this couple still harbour great passion for each other even after so many years together – and weakness, as writer–director Michael Hoffman (Promised Land) isn’t at all interested in the Tolstoyans, except as a backdrop to the drama played out between the Tolstoys and Chertkov. Hoffman is particularly uncharitable towards the character of Chertkov, who is rendered as a one dimensional villain, complete with a prominent and unflattering mustache that Giamatti practically twirls in every key scene in the movie. Since the film’s end credits reveal that Chertkov remained loyal to Tolstoy and his beliefs for the rest of his life, the movie misses a chance to render the battle over Tolstoy’s soul - and wealth - as a complex war of wills between two people, Sofya and Chertkov, who both love Leo Tolstoy and firmly believe they’re acting in his best interests. Hoffman would rather the audience take a clear side, safely cheering on Sofya as she flails against the evil Chertkov, to save the man she loves from financial and personal ruin.

That decision to neuter much of the inherent drama of The Last Station is deeply unfortunate but it shouldn’t detract us from watching Helen Mirren's turn in a career best performance, and we’re talking a career that has already seen her shine in various projects as diverse as the various Prime Suspect TV series, The Queen, Gosford Park, Last Orders, The Comfort of Strangers, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Cal and Excalibur, among so many others. In The Last Station, she completely holds the screen as Sofya, who in her impotent fury tries to get through to her passive, irritated husband, even as she spits insults at Chertkov and tries to entice Tolstoy’s new young secretary, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) to take her side. It’s a remarkable performance and a thrilling one, simply because it’s a part Mirren hasn’t really played before. (It’s also a neat contrast to her Oscar® winning incarnation of Queen Elizabeth II in 2006’s The Queen, where she played to perfection the monarch who values circumspection above all and rarely displays any overt emotion outside the privacy of Buckingham Palace.) Mirren’s been vulnerable on screen before, as the alcoholic Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison in TV’s Prime Suspect, for example, or as the Catholic woman in Cal, who falls in love with an IRA-connected man even though her Protestant husband was murdered by that terrorist group, but the flamboyant, spiteful, erratic Sofya, is something new for her and she runs with it.

Come Tuesday, and the Oscar® nominations, we’ll see if The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences agrees.

--Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto

No comments:

Post a Comment