I'm sure other folks will find kind things to say about The Last Station, but I can't. The costumes... the occasional elegant composition... the odd line... I probably could, but I can't. For starters, Mirren's shoo-in-for-a-nomination performance is a succession of Oscar clips, and not in a good way. She gives those telecast editors so many choices! Will it be the operatic ruckus where she smashes the best part of a crockery set, place by place down the length of the Tolstoys' dining table? The scene where she attempts to eavesdrop on all the other major characters, tangles herself up in a stray curtain, and screams abuse at them on all fours? The bit where she plays teary target practice with Paul Giamatti's portrait, mainly so we can accent this part of the plot with the cut-rate-Chekhov report of a gun going off behind closed doors? How about her farcical suicide attempt rolling off a pier? One thing's for sure, it won't be the fantastically embarrassing scene wherein she and Plummer exchange animal noises ("I'm your chicken, you be my big cock!") and ruffle each other's feathers on the marriage bed. Reader, I was watching that one through my fingers. The movie is structured around this furious showboating, which might have been histrionic fun if its actual drama weren't so measly, and Mirren, at her least pliable, so determined to build an entire exoskeleton of character out of incredulous frowning, transparent calculation and fawning hypochondria.
Every awards season brings in one obligatory misfire like The Last Station, which isn't bad enough to be written off as a no-hoper, while also struggling to constitute anything other than a leaden chore. You could see it as this year's Changeling -- or worse, last year's reheated Quills, since large chunks of it are given over to the same giggly battle between priggishness and sexual freedom which made that the prestige bummer of 2000. Swap in James McAvoy for Joaquin Phoenix, and Kerry Condon for Kate Winslet, and there's your romantic subplot between an earnest young acolyte just waiting to have his clothes ripped off, his eyes opened. In fairness, McAvoy, handsome and ardent with his neat little ginger beard, was the one major performer who stood a chance of dragging me back into the movie, in the frequent moments when I was mentally checking out, usually when someone read out another telegram, poured more tea, or followed up another thoroughly drab statement with the anxious question, "Does this make me a reactionary?". I don't know what it is about Paul Giamatti in period beards and foreign accents, but he sounds dubbed and hardly there, like he's trying out line readings for The Illusionist II. I have almost nothing to say about Plummer, or the tinkly earnestness of the score, or the way the closing crane shot wobbles its way inexpertly above a steam train, or the script, which hits all the historically pertinent notes without playing them in any way you could recognise as a decent tune. It's a hard movie to loathe, you'll probably find, but I tried my best. D+