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Performances redeem Tolstoy’s story
 

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

Sofya Tolstoy (Helen Mirren) and Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer). Stephan Rabold photo, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.


As costume dramas go, The Last Station is perfunctory and sags in the middle. Set in the last year of Leo Tolstoy’s life, it dramatizes the battle between the author’s wife Sofya and the leaders of the Tolstoyan Movement – which the writer founded – over the rights to his works. The tussle over intellectual property rights has obvious contemporary resonance, even though the film is set exactly a hundred years ago in pre-revolutionary Russia. But although Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, as the volatile couple, provide fireworks and humour, the theme is found wanting.

We meet ageing Count Leo Tolstoy – a sage-like Christopher Plummer, wearing a long, white beard – surrounded by family and acolytes on his lavish country estate. Having earned international literary stardom, the author of Anna Karenina and War and Peace is about to renounce his title, home and his tempestuous wife in favour of the Tolstoyan Movement he founded to promote social equality and passive resistance. However, Tolstoy’s wife Sofya, a fiery Dame Mirren, believes that, after 48 years of marriage and 13 children, the estate should fall to their family.

The conspiring leader of the movement, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), fearing Sofya’s influence and power over his affections, dispatches the naive Tolstonian Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy, not altogether convincing in the part) to assist and spy on the author. Bulgakov’s own loyalties are tested as his hero starts confiding in him about his inner struggle to follow his own ideals and Bulgakov’s values are also tested in an affair with the down-to-earth Masha (an assured Kerry Condon).

Wild at Heart:
The Films of Nettie Wild

nettiewild

In January, the Vancouver Film Critics Circle awarded Nettie Wild and Vancouver International Film Festival founder Leonard Schein with the Achievement Award for Contribution to the British Columbia Film Industry.
Ms. Wild’s work and interests span the globe and also encompass issues of regional interest to the broader Western Canadian/British Columbian community. From the Zapatista revolution in Mexico to a Native standoff in BC to street nurses working with addicts in Vancouver, acclaimed documentary filmmaker Nettie Wild plunges into the heart of politically volatile events and emerges with a portrait of their core issues. Both FIX and A Place Called Chiapas won Genies for Best Canadian Feature Documentary and all of her films have been widely distributed in cinemas across North America.
Notable amongst the many honours she has received for her body of work, in addition to her two Genie Awards, are major retrospectives at the Hot Docs festival and the Ontario Cinematheque.
For details about Nettie Wild’s work, including her awards, visit www.canadawildproductions.com

Anvil Press is pleased to launch Wild at Heart: The Films of Nettie Wild. (Text by Mark Harris; interview by Claudia Medina; series editor, Brian Ganter.)

 

The production notes state that some of Tolstoy’s descendants acted as advisers throughout the production and it’s clear early on where writer-director Michael Hoffman’s sympathies lie. Giamatti’s moustache-twirling character is painted as the arch-villain of the piece, coming across as a conniving snake, as he urges Tolstoy to leave his work “for the Russian people.” The goals of the movement, whatever they are, are only loosely touched upon, and in a way that is loaded with suspicion or, in the case of Bulgakov, deemed impossibly romantic.

The redeeming quality of The Last Station is the performances by Plummer and Mirren, who are given free reign over the subject matter. Plummer’s mumbling, grumbling, pensive performance, interspersed with moments of explosiveness and lucidity, gives a good sense of his character’s inner turmoil. But it is Mirren who really lets rip, one minute fainting and the next throwing crockery around in a histrionic fit. In her quieter moments, she’s also a master of the barbed put-down and bed-chamber playfulness. Fans of the two actors will get something from the film for the performances alone. That, and the attractive period visuals, even if the story is a plod.

One last thing; much has been written about the appropriateness of Plummer’s long, white beard. There are a few snippets of original archive footage at the end of The Last Station and, yes, Tolstoy had a big, white beard typical of the era.

Love & Savagery (out February 5) is a tale of forbidden love where spiritual ideals do battle with earthly desires. I haven’t seen the film, but it sounds intriguing. It is 1969 and poet-cum-geologist Michael McCarthy (Allan Hawco) travels from his native Newfoundland to Ireland’s west coast to study the Burren, a rugged landscape known for its limestone terraces. In a nearby village, he and a beautiful waitress named Cathleen (Irish actor Sarah Greene) are inescapably drawn to each other, although she is about to become a nun. Compounding Michael’s problems, the local townsfolk are determined to keep the two apart, even resorting to physical violence. Will Cathleen choose the love of a man or the love of God?

Robert Alstead made the Vancouver documentary You Never Bike Alone. www.youneverbikealone.com. He writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.