Danny Boyle’s filmography really is the cinematic equivalent of The Beatles’ White Album; he never makes the same film twice, and is as skilled at science fiction (Sunshine) and horror (28 Days Later) as he is at human drama (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) and comedy (Millions). And, true to form his latest, Trance, is something entirely different and entirely magnificent.
As the author of literary masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy is a figure of huge cultural importance, and an inspiration felt across the globe. Michael Hoffman’s film, however, takes a far more intimate look at this great man; set during the last year of Tolstoy’s like, the story focuses on his passionate yet fractured relationship with his wife of 48 years.
Having become a revered figure in Russia and beyond, Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) has rejected the trappings of celebrity and embraced a more simple lifestyle, joined by the thousands who have responded to his teachings and beliefs by forming the Tolstoy movement. His wife Sofia (Helen Mirren) does not share his views, however, believing that they should be more concerned with securing the financial future of their own family. She is in direct conflict with Tolstoy’s devoted disciple Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) who is urging Tolstoy to sign a new will leaving the rights to all of his works to the Russian people. Into this fray comes new secretary Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) who witnesses a family being fractured by the ideals he himself holds so dear. When he decides to leave Sofia she is left devastated, but when he becomes too ill to continue, stopping at an isolated railway station in Astapovo, the couple – and Valentin – realise what is truly important.
The very definition of a character piece, The Last Station is a stunning example of a group of accomplished actors at the very top of their game. The assembled cast breathe vibrant life into these figures from history, with Plummer and Mirren being absolutely mesmerising as the explosive couple at the heart of the narrative maelstrom. McAvoy, too, is perfect as the innocent thrust into the fray, being the eyes and ears for the audience, while Giamatti lends just the right balance of earnest devotion and duplicitous scheming to the shadowy Chertkov.
Hoffman has done a marvellous job adapting Jay Parini’s novel for the screen and it’s handled with skill by Hoffman (One Fine Day, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) By focusing on the man, rather than the literary behemoth, they have presented Tolstoy in universally recognisable terms; as a husband and father whose beliefs about love define who he has become in his final years. It is, in truth, a love story, between Tolstoy and Sofia, and also between him and his disciples and it is accessible on the most personal of levels. Exquisitely shot by DoP Sebastian Edschmid, The Last Station will surprise and enthrall those expecting a dusty, weighty biopic; instead, it’s an involving, moving and beautifully crafted piece of cinema. 4 stars
There’s an interview with Hoffman, plus trailer. Pretty lightweight fare for such a substantial film. 1.5 stars
Stars Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy
Director Michael Hoffman
Format DVD & Blu-ray
Distributor Optimum Home Entertainment
Released June 21