Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Last Station

We had the Budget last night so telly was wall-to-wall finance blah. Fed up, I decided to go to the pictures.
The film I saw was Last Station, which claims to tell the story of Tolstoy's last days. As I spent rather a lot of time studying Tolstoy about three million years ago, I suppose I ought to know whether it gives an accurate account of events. I'm ashamed to say I don't though.
Actually, am I ashamed and ought I to know? After all, I was studying Tolstoy's novels; I never signed up to investigate his life. And isn't going off and poking about to get bits of gossip about someone who wrote a few books a long time ago just another version of the whole celebritisation of the author phenomenon - which I hate (although I do recognise that Tolstoy was possibly the first real example of that phenomenon)? Aren't writers' works supposed to do the job of expressing what they want to express - trying to find out how the writers got on with their families is just being nosy, isn't it? If his book works, who cares if the author is a little too friendly with his dog or his goldfish (not that I'm implying Tolstoy or anyone else for that matter engaged in anything untoward with their pets).
I think it's time to return to my original focus - the film and what it is like. It has some beautiful landscape scenes, particularly one featuring Countess Tolstoy being conveyed through the peasant-speckled countryside in an open carriage pulled by a pair of grey horses that perfectly match her meringue shaped hat (very My Fair Lady [the scene at the races]) and cream coloured dress. It has too much distracting music - hidden orchestras strike up every time anyone is left alone in a room, ditto any time anything romantic is about to happen or a steam train appears, (although I'm glad to say that the steam trains aren't used as a visual euphemism for anything romantic actually happening - that would be pushing it).
The story concerns Viktor Chertkov, the moving force behind the Tolstoyan movement supposedly (no, I didn't know there was such a thing either). In the film he is portrayed as the kind of person Brit characterises excellently here. James McEvoy is hired by him to be Tolstoy's secretary. McEvoy plays the role by giving his now celebrated impression of a gulpingly shy young man. Although he's good at it, he should probably drop this from his repertoire before too long - it's beginning to resemble a slightly tired party trick on his part.
McEvoy is given a love interest called Masha, who, despite living in the world's first hippy commune, never appears without hair that looks as though it's just been blow dried by a very skilful hand - and she is badly served by a script that has her use the word 'tightarse', which, to my ears, jars in a 19th century context. Helen Mirren plays Countess Tolstoy, clad almost constantly in pale blue (I suspect she's had her colours done - someone told me it was the best investment they'd ever made, which is quite a statement.)
Mirren gives an absolutely wonderful performance - she holds the whole film together. She is its powerhouse. She also proves definitively that she deserves to be on the list of the world's most beautiful women, even if it was compiled by a bunch of cynics, who, recognising modern demographics, decided to please their growing middle-aged readership and reject most contenders under 30, (thus, it seems to me, redefining at one stroke the notion of beauty that has been flogged to us for years - something that is quite hard to absorb, when you've spent several decades being brainwashed into thinking a) that youth and loveliness do not so much go hand in hand but are in fact Siamese twins and b) that hanging onto youthfulness is something you should strive for at all costs.)
For mercy's sake, get back to the point, ZMKC. To conclude, the film is entertaining. It - or rather Helen Mirren as the hapless Countess Tolstoy - made me blub once or twice, which is fine by me. It's nicely shot - sort of Merchant Ivory pretty. I don't totally understand why the subject matter inspired Jay Parini to write a novel and the film makers to make a film from the novel (a film of a novel about a novelist), but the odd sequence of events leading to Tolstoy's death does seem to hold a fascination for artists - Rose Tremain wrote a short story called The Jester of Astapovo about the same thing, but told from the point of view of the station master who gives up his bed for the dying Tolstoy, and there was a painting of a scene from the same events in the recent Sulman prize exhibition. I imagine that almost everything has now been wrung from the incident, although possibly some mileage could be dragged from looking at the thing from the perspective of Tolstoy's daughter Sasha (I may only think this could be interesting because of Ann Marie Duff's excellent performance in the role [she is good in almost anything, although even her dynamism couldn't turn George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan into an entertaining evening as far as I was concerned {I wonder sometimes if time is going to transform Tom Stoppard's plays into the dry, dull ideas-vehicles that GBH's now appear to us to be.}])
In short, the film is absorbing and enjoyable but it is a fictionalisation of actual events about which I know little and I cannot work out whether it should be judged on fictional grounds or as a documentary. If you judge it purely as a fiction then it tells a story of love, expressed by the Countess Tolstoy character, opposed to calculation, expressed by the Chertkov character. The trouble is, because these were real figures and some at least of the events did happen in one form or another, it is harder to accept that the conflict was as clearcut and straightforward as the one we are shown. In fiction, things can be presented more starkly. In real life, I suspect the opposing personalities were neither as appealing and good nor as straightforwardly unpleasant as the ones in this film are presented as being. If they were fictional, we would have to believe whatever their creator told us about them - because they aren't, I, at least, expect them not to be mere emblems but well-rounded, complex, good and bad flawed people. Chertkov in particular emerges from this film as a one-dimensional villain - if he existed only in the minds of the film-makers, I would accept that. Because he actually existed I know that I can go and find out more about him and I'm sure it will turn out that he had many different sides. Funnily enough the one really big flaw in War and Peace for me is the insertion of Napoleon into the text as a character - a real figure popping up amidst Tolstoy's fictional creations sounds a really dud note, in my view. The film makes me uneasy in a similar way. It is not a documentary - and yet it is about people who lived and things that really happened, so it is not a fiction. Perhaps it is a moral question that is bothering me - liberties have been taken with real characters. They are helpless to fight back about the way they have been portrayed.

May, 2010

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