When the Oscars are looming, audiences must exercise caution when choosing a film to go and see. Oscar Dramas are a tricky class of film. Taking as an example 2008 Oscar race, for every Gran Torino and Frost/ Nixon there was a The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or The Reader. If you’re lucky, you could get something moving and riveting. If unlucky, however, you might end up with a dull movie with terrible Oscar Clips (the scenes in which venerable actors give loud and annoying bravura performances), which merely serve to startle you back into lucidity. The Last Station, oddly enough, falls between these two stools.
The story closely resembles your typical Oscar Drama. Set over the last days of Leo Tolstoy’s (Christopher Plummer) life, it centres on Valentin (James McAvoy) a young disciple of Tolstoy’s writings, who becomes embroiled in a feud between Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren), Tolstoy’s devoted wife of 48 years and the oily Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). Chertkov seems to have convinced Tolstoy to write a new will, which Sofya fears might disinherit her. Valentin is swayed one way then another, whilst struggling with the celibacy aspect of Tolstoy’s doctrine.
Whilst it does sound like the perfect framework for some high-pitched melodramatic acting and Oscar-friendly period settings, the film is surprisingly entertaining for the most part. What helps it get by is its sense of humour which allows for several funny scenes. The sense of humour does remain strong for the first half of the film, with even a sting on the tail of one particular Oscar Clip. During this period, the film even retains a light comedy score.
The problem with The Last Station is that it loses its way during the second half. Here, the comedy is replaced by wallowing with everyone giving everyone else significant and serious looks. The comedy score gives way to the more typical Oscar Score, all over-bearing instruments and droning chords. Before you know it, The Last Station has become just another dull Oscar Drama. What is particularly frustrating about the film is that the first half shows you what it could have been had the film-makers tried harder while the second half shows you what its going to be because they can’t be bothered.
The performances are the same. In the first half, the four leads are all fun and likable (even Giamatti whose excellent performance as someone you really don’t know whether to like or dislike is the best in the film). However, by the end, their company isn’t all that enjoyable. Even plot and character motivations, initially so clear, become muddied and confusing.
Initially a good film with great potential, it’s a pity that the film opts for by-the-numbers melodrama midway through.