Sunday 11 April 2010

Battle of wills (ST 21/02/10)

The Last Station (15) 112 mins ***
Crazy Heart (15) 111 mins ***
The Lovely Bones (12A) 135 mins **

The poster threatens beardy ponderousness, but for some while, Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station plays like the least Tolstoyan film anyone’s likely to make about Tolstoy. This is Russian chamber drama rewritten by Ray Cooney: a marital ding-dong as observed by the domestics. It’s 1910, and the aged writer (Christopher Plummer) is still fighting an irresolvable battle with his countess wife Sofya (Helen Mirren) over their respective attitudes to private property, which in pre-Revolutionary Russia must have been a subject akin to the verticality of the toilet seat.

Thrust between them is a new personal secretary, Valentin Fedorovich Bulgakov (James McAvoy). A Tolstoy fanboy, he finds the position unexpectedly exhausting, obliged as he is to keep two separate diaries, dependent on what each faction wants to read. Furthermore, Bulgakov’s teetotal, celibate vegetarianism is under continual assault from the estate’s free-and-easy living and flirty serving wenches. The question The Last Station poses is simply this: can our boyish hero keep it up?

One of the few young actors with any demonstrable sense of humour, McAvoy proves commendably willing to send up his incipient heartthrob status: his Bulgakov under-performs sexually, and the Countess describes him as “handsome, in a peculiar sort of way”. Dame Helen, of course, needs no excuse for mischief, although that Oscar nod seems generous for her - at one point, literal - impersonation of a game old bird. Reclining in the boudoir, Sofya pleads with her husband: “I’m still your little chicken... you’re still my big cock.” Well, quite.

How all this - or John Sessions’s doctor, interrupting scenes with such lines as “I’m sorry, sir, it’s time for your enema” - is likely to sit with serious-minded Russian literature scholars, I don’t know, though Plummer’s Tolstoy remains a dignified and even touching figure among the hubbub. It’s true the film becomes ploddier as Leo lies dying beside the railway tracks in a stationmaster’s hut: this, finally, is the Tolstoy movie that poster promised. For a good hour or more, though, Hoffman’s film is far livelier and funnier than it looks.

With his long hair and genial, unfussed demeanour, Jeff Bridges has always been an actor prone to dishevelment: think of his pianist in The Fabulous Baker Boys - smooth as silk on stage, a wreck off it - or The Big Lebowski’s Dude, shambling through that shaggy-dog story in cardigan and flip-flops. As the grizzled, hard-drinking circuit singer “Bad” Blake in Crazy Heart, Bridges is a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll, and more than a little bit of a mess: a figure who appears to sweat whiskey sour through his unchanged shirt, and drifts on the dry, stale breeze between motel parking lots.

A slow process of self-realisation begins when Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a young journalist, shows up one night before a gig to interview Bad for the local rag. It’s a terrific scene, capturing perfectly how interviews are often a setting down of the public record, an opportunity for the subject to address past slights, in the guise of an extended flirtation. Bad suddenly finds the steady rhythms that have sustained him out on the road are ever so slightly off; as he says to Jean, “I never noticed how much of a dump this room was before you walked in.”

Scott Cooper’s debut evokes a careworn, unglamorous America, proving sympathetic and attentive to those Bad leaves behind on the sidelines. Gyllenhaal gives an unsentimental portrayal of a working single mum who needs her man to demonstrate greater stability than Bad proves capable of; Colin Farrell has a nice hesitancy to his swagger as the singer’s one-time protégé. If it’s somewhat beholden to its protagonist’s boozy listlessness, we do gain a feel for those dependencies that shape Bad’s existence: Cooper, formerly a jobbing actor himself, is more attuned than most to the quiet complexity of life’s supporting acts.

More than one filmmaker flirted with adapting The Lovely Bones and, in the end, one has to conclude the material went to the most prominent, not necessarily the best suited. In the first misfire of his career, Peter Jackson has reshaped Alice Sebold’s troubling bestseller into a heartwarming 12A-rated not-coming-of-age drama, the novelty being that 70s teenager Susie Salmon is dead from the word go, and narrating the fallout from her murder from some place beyond the stars.

The absolute credulity that made this director’s Tolkien and Kong adaptations soar here simply leaves Jackson too close to his heroine: the film’s conception of suburban normalcy (miscast dad Mark Wahlberg) and deviancy (Stanley Tucci, twitchily obvious) are exactly those of a blandly undiscerning mallrat. Set Saoirse Ronan’s wide-eyed Susie, gambolling through her Athena-poster purgatory, against the brooding, bloodied heroines of 1994’s Heavenly Creatures, and it’s apparent repeated exposure to fantasy has softened Jackson. This Salmon’s essentially boneless; she’s been filleted for general consumption.

No comments:

Post a Comment