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The Last Station DVD Review

The Last Station movie poster The Last Station

Theatrical Release: December 4, 2009 / Running Time: 113 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Michael Hoffman / Writers: Michael Hoffman (screenplay), Jay Parini (novel)

Cast: Helen Mirren (Countess Sofya Andreyevna Tolstaya), Christopher Plummer (Count Lev Nikolayevich Leo Tolstoy), Paul Giamatti (Vladimir Grigorevich Chertkov), James McAvoy (Valentin Fedorovich Bulgakov), Anne-Marie Duff (Alexandra Lvovna Sasha Tolstoy), Kerry Condon (Masha), John Sessions (Dr. Dushan Petrovich Makovitsky), Patrick Kennedy (Sergeyenko)

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In 1910, when The Last Station opens, Leo Tolstoy is not just the author of the acclaimed novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina; he is also considered a philosopher, a prophet, and the head of a Christian movement based on pacifism and universal love. The iconic Russian writer (played by Christopher Plummer) has a new personal secretary appointed to him in the young acolyte Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy).
The man who hires Valentin, Tolstoy's confidant Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), gives strict instructions to keep a diary of observations. Valentin isn't the only one scribbling notes.

Tolstoy's estate, rather lush for someone who has renounced worldly possessions, offers an eye-opening experience for Valentin. He witnesses the waning relationship between Tolstoy and his wife, Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren), who is as admiring and contentious as Tolstoy seems disinterested. Adding to the primarily one-way marital strain is a power struggle existing between Sofya and Chertkov. Sofya rightfully suspects that her octogenarian husband's will is being rewritten to prevent her from inheriting her husband's copyrights. Chertkov believes the writings ought to go into the public domain.

Acting as a mediator of sorts, Valentin has a personal issue arise and threaten one component of the Tolstoyan creed: celibacy. The nervous sneezer falls for headstrong farm hand Masha (Kerry Condon) and loses his virginity in the process.

Nervous, fresh-faced secretary Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) finds the abstinence part of the Tolstoyan lifestyle an immediate challenge. Bushy-bearded icon of Russian literature Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) is warm and welcoming towards his new personal secretary.

Contrary to one's expectations for a film depicting the final months in Tolstoy's life, The Last Station often takes a comedic and almost farcical bent. From the marriage woes to young love to the author's twilight recollections, no subject is too sacred to play for laughs and tackle broadly. Of course, none of it is really funny by modern standards, but you notice the pauses where you can easily imagine hearing chuckles from the older demographic most likely to appreciate this.

To be sure, the film looks nice and seeing pictures of the real Yasnaya Polyana house shows it has been faithfully recreated. But the pleasant production design is filtered through uninspired handheld camera work and just a glaring lack of dramatic and comedic momentum. You can stay invested, but it's a challenge, for which it's easy to lay blame on director Michael Hoffman (One Fine Day, 1999's A Midsummer Night's Dream), who wrote the screenplay from Jay Parini's 1990 novel. It's upsetting how unenjoyable this is considering the talent in front of the camera. Without having read the book, I have to wonder if there was a film to be made from it.

In a gag you'd expect more from a sitcom than a Tolstoy biopic, wife Sofya (Helen Mirren) climbs outside her window to eavesdrop on the next room's guarded discussions. Paul Giamatti offers handlebar mustache-twirling villainy as Tolstoy's oft-agitated confidant Vladimir Chertkov.

The on-screen talent did get some recognition for their work here. Christopher Plummer, who turned 80 in December, picked up his first Oscar nomination, questionably designated a supporting actor. It's fascinating how Plummer has racked up so many notable film credits in recent years after the three generally uneventful decades that followed his lead turn in The Sound of Music. I think his resurgence, which last year included voicing the villain in Pixar's Up and playing the titular character in Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, may have factored into his overdue accolade, but he does have a compelling screen presence as Tolstoy.
As the desperate, overdramatic countess, Helen Mirren received her fourth Academy Award nomination and second Leading Actress one in four years. Mirren is interesting, if not necessarily obvious statue material.

Both Plummer and Mirren had to settle for simply being nominated at the Oscars, Golden Globes, and SAG Awards. Both actors are a bit more thoughtful in their performances than their castmates; Giamatti's range seems more limited with every film I see, and McAvoy does less with the ostensible protagonist than a newcomer who would have welcomed such a breakthrough part.

With so little to grab onto, I found myself most intrigued by The Last Station as a showcase for unusual facial hair. In Plummer's Tolstoy, we have the famous long white beard. From McAvoy's Valentin, a far less commanding spotty reddish beard. Giamatti's Chertkov brings something in between to the table, a full brown beard whose distinguishing feature is its handlebar moustache, whose twirls and waxing are jokingly acknowledged. Tolstoy himself appears in old footage accompanying the end credits.

Five months after beginning its unprofitable theatrical run stateside, The Last Station comes to DVD and Blu-ray today.

Watch clips from The Last Station:
"People are Making Fun of You" • Change the Will • "I'm the Work of Your Life"

Buy The Last Station on DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Subtitles: English, English for Hearing Impaired, French
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled in English
Release Date: June 22, 2010
Suggested Retail Price: $27.96
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Black Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Also available on Blu-ray Disc ($34.95 SRP)


The Last Station looks terrific in the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of Sony's DVD. Detail is quite remarkable and sharpness consistently satisfies. The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack also provides a greater kick than expected. It delivers standout atmosphere, from flies buzzing around to crickets chirping to (would ya believe it?) several gun shot firings. The primary component -- dialogue -- remains clear and intelligible, especially since the film forgoes attempting Russian accents.

Helen Mirren has fun by a Victrola in the blooper reel "The Missed Station." Christopher Plummer fondly recalls his reckless younger days in his AFI Fest 2009 interview. I'm not sure that the profile pairings of the DVD's main menu mean to amuse, but nevertheless they do.


Extras begin with two audio commentaries. The first features the two veteran actors Oscar-nominated for their Last Station work: Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren. They are complimentary and reflective, but far more often than that, they are quiet. Tracks such as this would be easier to enjoy as a selected scene commentary that compiles the highlights and spares us the silences,
or else just combined with the other discussion. Remarking upon the damp climate and their favorite scenes, the accomplished performers don't share nearly enough to justify spending two hours with them.

The second commentary lets writer/director Michael Hoffman fly solo. He has more to say and on many more topics. Hoffman is probably most interesting when he's discussing the facts on which the film is based, but he is also moderately engaging when he's covering his filmmaking process, from writing and casting to period details upheld. While the name Michael Hoffman is considerably less recognized than the other track's stars, he understandably makes for a much more substantive listen, having done more on this film than anyone else.

"The Missed Station" (7:40) is not the making-of featurette you anticipate, but a rather extended blooper reel. Found here are some McAvoy sneeze outtakes and many more profanity-laced goofs. The light mood created by tongue-tied, expletive-happy actors is as unexpected as the fact that this is preserved for mass consumption.

Next up come seven deleted scenes (12:30), which include a different introduction to Valentin, some glimpses of a Tolstoy son (Tomas Spencer), an alternate ending, and several bits that would have extended the film's serious final act. Like the bloopers, these are unconscionably not enhanced for 16:9 displays.

AFI Fest 2009's "Tribute to Christopher Plummer" (18:42) gives us a grounded interview with the actor in front of an audience. We miss the preceding comments and clips that put his career in context, but the good-humored Plummer discusses his memoir and the different places his acting journey has taken him, paying special notice to Shakespeare, Mike Wallace, The Sound of Music and The Last Station. It's a nice, appropriate inclusion that I only wished concluded with him singing "Edelweiss."

The Last Station's own theatrical trailer (2:05) is kindly preserved here.

The disc opens with promos for Blu-ray/BD-Live, Mother and Child, Chloe, and Get Low. From the multi-page Previews menu, additional trailers are found for Please Give, Micmacs, The Runaways, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, The White Ribbon, A Prophet, and The Secret in Their Eyes.

The amusing main menu runs golden montage between serious shots of characters in profile.

The nearly 50-year marriage between author Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) and his wife Sofya (Helen Mirren) has grown tensely strained.


With no particular appreciation for Tolstoy going in, I found the little interest I brought to The Last Station no less than it deserved. With the fine actors assembled here, one assumes there was real potential to Jay Parini's novel and Michael Hoffman's script adapting it. But it's tough to see it in the final product, which ranges from oddly cartoonish to dully melodramatic. The two Oscar-nominated performances are interesting, but hardly worth going out of your way to experience.

Sony's DVD does include a number of extras that those who enjoyed the film should appreciate. But those two commentaries clearly should have been combined into one group session.

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The Cast of The Last Station:
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Reviewed June 22, 2010.

Text copyright 2010 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2009 Sony Pictures Classics, Egoli Tossell Film, Zephyr Films, and 2010 Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
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