Friday, February 26, 2010

"The Last Station" for Leo Tolstoy, brings up a lot of dicey issues in a period piece

The film title “The Last Station” refers literally to Astapovo Station in southern Russia, where author Leo Tolstoy died in 1910 after leaving his manor to live as an ascetic, according to his own moral and spiritual voice.

The film, from Sony Pictures Classics and Egoli Tossell Films, directed by Michael Hoffman and based on the historical “novel” by Jay Parini, manages to combine several moral and political themes in this period piece of Russia just before Bolshevism took hold, although many signs were there. Although filmed widescreen (2.35:1) it comes across as a stagey drama rather than adventure, a kind of didactic companion piece for “War and Peace.” Christopher Plummer looks and acts like the real character, with Helen Mirren as wife Sofya, who may seem greedy at first, but who probably sees the issue of Tolstoy leaving the “copyright” of his works to her as a sign of his love.

Paul Giamatti plays Valdimir Chertkov, the confidant who shares Tolstoy’s “socialist” idealism and who wants to leave the proceeds from his work to the people (the term “public domain” appears). Chertkov hires a young male secretary Valetin Bulgakov, played by James McAvoy. There is a hint that Chertkov is attracted to the young man, who seems gay to the family, except that he carries on vigorously with the daughter (Anne-Marie Duff). The concept of his job becomes interesting, as he has to insert his personal charisma into the affairs of the family. Professional employment in the past was sometimes a lot more personal than it is today.

Visually, the film is striking, with the steam trains, the Russian commune, the carriages, and the century old technology filling Tolstoy’s office. Telegraph provided the email of the day, and figures into the story.

A few years after Tolstoy’s death, the Russian government decided to give Sofya the copyright after all, although she should have been fine with the estate. (There is something about the radical Left, you know, that considers inherited wealth as morally invalid. Tolstoy: “I believe that wealth corrupts us all.”) Nevertheless, the movie seems ironic to someone who follows today’s debate about copyright and the Internet. Being honored as an “author” in those days depended much more on formal public approbation than it does today, in the age of print-on-demand.

The original music score by Sergei Yevtushenko includes a triple-time piano melody that sounds like Tchaikowsky. There is a scene showing the playing of 78 rpm records with a victrola horn, an aria from Pucinni's "Madame Butterfly"

This film is not related to the Thomas McCarthy’s “The Station Agent” (Miramax, 2003), but that film also dealt, in a curious sense, with inheriting “property.”
Here’s the TV Guide Youtube clip interviewing Helen Mirren and James McAvoy.

I recall a curious Canadian film about copyright called “Uncut” (dir. John Greyson), which I saw at the University of Minnesota in 1997.

The official site for the film is here.

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