44 Inch Station (Weekly Links)

I have been at sea for two weeks (no, literally – at sea – explanations forthcoming) and so have been away from the website. Just two reviews this week for the Herald:

The Last Station.

by Robert Horton

With novels such as “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” under his belt, Leo Tolstoy might reasonably have looked forward to a little quiet time at the end of his life.

The movie “The Last Station” suggests otherwise. While the elderly Tolstoy, played here in biblical-bearded splendor by Christopher Plummer, had moved toward a life of Christian asceticism and pacifism, with a mind toward dispensing his possessions to peasants, his wife, Sofya, was more inclined to have a good time.

Sofya, played by Helen Mirren, is especially concerned that her husband might be changing his will to give away his literary legacy (and the profits thereof) to the Russian citizenry. This will not do, and she duels with his executor (Paul Giamatti), a fussy fellow with a fervent belief in sharing the wealth.

We witness much of this through the perspective of a young Tolstoy enthusiast, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy). He’s been enlisted as a personal assistant to the great man — and since he basically treats Tolstoy like a Beatle, he spends much of his time around the writer stuttering and fawning.

“The Last Station,” based on a novel by Jay Parini, is less a serious look at a historical heavyweight than a situation comedy featuring some famous people. Yes, it eventually takes us to the end of Tolstoy’s life, but the tone until then is light and frisky.

It’s almost as though director Michael Hoffman wanted to lure us into large ideas by using the comic tone.

He succeeded at that in his interesting 1995 film “Restoration,” with Robert Downey Jr., but the problem here is that the large ideas never quite seem to get on stage.

Instead, the film turns into an acting showcase. It’s pretty fun as that, with Plummer stretching himself out in Tolstoy’s billowy blouses and Helen Mirren giving a human pulse to a character that could have become shrewish and shrill.

Giamatti brings admirable focus to his true believer, and McAvoy (late of “Atonement” and “Wanted”) does a steady thing with an underwritten part.

So the movie is a nice package, for sure, but ultimately it feels like it’s a lesser entry in the “Amadeus” school of historical embroidery, using a great artist’s biography to create a little lesson. It’s an easy film to take, easy to shake off and shorter than “War and Peace.”

44 Inch Chest. “Cheeky, foul-mouthed good will.”