There was no rushin' this Russian tale

by Steven Rea

Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

10 February 2010


Michael Hoffman was back at home in Boise, Idaho, last week after months of hoofing around Europe and the States to promote his film, “The Last Station” — a film that received Academy Award nominations for two of its stars: Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer. A roiling costume drama about the final, stormy days in the marriage of the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy and his hard-tested wife, Sofya, “The Last Station” was five years in the making.

Or, more accurately, five years in the process of trying to get made.

At one point, Hoffman had Meryl Streep and Anthony Hopkins lined up for the leads. But even with that “beyond A-list” cast, financing was a struggle. Ultimately, the film was produced in Germany, with almost $8 million of German money behind it.

And even then, after Hoffman had shot and edited his 1910 period piece — which also stars James McAvoy, Kerry Condon and Paul Giamatti — he wasn’t sure what fate awaited.

“If you had talked to me the first of September, before we took the movie to the Telluride Film Festival, I’d have made a pretty cogent argument to you that we weren’t even going to get North American distribution,” says Hoffman, who adapted Jay Parini’s 1990 novel and directed the film — and who, make no mistake, is “ecstatic” by the Oscar nominations. Sony Pictures Classics acquired “The Last Station” after its enthusiastic screenings at the venerable Colorado fest.

“For it to have turned around the way that it has has been extraordinary,” he says, “because I had really low expectations. And not because people weren’t liking it, it’s just that the market is so tough. You look at what happened at the Toronto festival, with 314 movies screening and I think eight movies sold — I mean, a few others already had distribution, but it’s really, really challenging for a filmmaker right now.

“It seems like if you’re in the business of distribution, or you’re a studio, you’re spending less money, making fewer films, buying fewer films — and making more money doing so.

“So, I fear that that looks to them like a good business model. And a bad climate to try to get a movie out there to the public.”

Hoffman, heretofore best known for his ‘91 comedy “Soapdish” (his other titles include “Some Girls,” with Patrick Dempsey and Jennifer Connelly, and the larky “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with Michelle Pfeiffer, Kevin Kline and Calista Flockhart), had read Parini’s novel about Tolstoy’s transformation from literary lion to alt-culture guru back when it was published 20 years ago.

“I didn’t really see it as a film then,” he admits, on the phone from his home, jazz music bopping in the background. “I think it was only after I’d been married for 12 years and reread it, that I saw this tough movie I really wanted to make about the difficulty of living with love, and the impossibility of living without love — the tragicomedy of marriage and all big relationships that we have in our lives that end up forming us.”

And “The Last Station” definitely brims with laughter and tears. Mirren is pitch-perfect as a wife once at the center of her husband’s life, now pushed to the perimeter by a phalanx of Tolstoy sycophants and disciples. She crashes through balcony windows, feigns illness and tries suicide, rants and raves — and yet nothing the actress does is over the top.

“Helen has this ability to balance the comic and the dramatic really seamlessly — because it’s a real obstacle course here. It’s a great part, there’s a lot to do, and I think she was aware of that, and she certainly took it and made the most of it, without making too much of it.

“It would have been easy to fall into the trap of self-pity with that character. And it would have been easy for her to want to ingratiate herself with the audience — because actors usually get nervous when there’s a character who they’re afraid might not be sympathetic. And she never, ever does that. ... Therefore, the audience absolutely trusts her.”

Plummer, too, is formidable. Only a few years younger than Tolstoy at his death (82 — Plummer is 80), the actor brings wisdom, humor and stubborn ferocity to the part. And if you look at the archival film footage of Tolstoy that Hoffman runs over the end credits, Plummer, with his beard and his hat, looks a dead ringer.

Plummer did his work on “The Last Station” almost immediately after finishing up the title role in Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” (currently in theaters). There’s definite thematic overlap.

“Exactly. There’s a kind of King Lear thing,” Hoffman says, “this old guy doing this reevaluation of himself at the end of his life.”

If it seems odd that Plummer was nominated in the supporting actor category for “The Last Station” — Mirren is in the leading-role slot — Hoffman says that by simple measure of screen time, that’s where he belongs.

“There’s some actual test for this, to avoid what they call ‘category fraud,’” he explains. “But I thought it was a good place for Christopher to be, given that it wasn’t really a big enough role to compete for best actor.

“The novel is interesting in that way, because you’ve got six different points of view, but none of them are Tolstoy’s. Tolstoy is in the middle as this figure that everybody else talks about, and looks at, and lives through whatever he reflects back to them. It’s like they’re lined up in a circle, with Tolstoy at the center, and it’s whatever he reflects back to them that allows them to value themselves, or count themselves as really being alive.

“So, he’s present even when he isn’t present, and that’s what I tried to reflect in the film. He’s central in terms of the consciousness of the other characters, but in terms of his actual role, I think you’d be surprised how few minutes Christopher’s on screen.”

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