Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Last Station & The Ghost Writer

I know approximately as much about the social and economic philosophies of Leo Tolstoy coming out of The Last Station as I did going in (read: not very much). The film opens with a title card quoting Tolstoy: "Everything I understand, I understand only because of love." Now, the only halfway-viable defense of Twilight I've heard is that its love-conquers-all message is timeless, beautiful and irrefutable; I suppose we could look at The Last Station as a Twilight for the geriatric costume drama set. Nothing much matters here except that love is a pervasive, binding force or some such nonsense. Do with this what you will, but when the first act proves to be a lighthearted sex comedy, I find it decidedly refreshing. When the whole thing inevitably devolves into a protracted death knell, it's then only marginally disappointing.

Both The Last Station and The Ghost Writer follow meek protagonists navigating the epic dramas of larger-than-life political figures to whom they are only tenuously connected.

Here, professional supporting lead James McAvoy is Valentin, recruited as private secretary to Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) just in time to witness the dissolution of the writer's marriage, the scramble to control his estate and, in a single scene that seems to last the better part of an hour, the death of the writer himself.

At first barely interested in politics, writer-director Michael Hoffman stays true to the perspective of his inactive hero. Valentin is quickly (and against his will) cast as a quadruple agent answering first to Vladimir (Paul Giamatti, trying to wrest control over Tolstoy's valuable intellectual property); then to the Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren, trying to provide for her kids rather than the people of Russia); then to Tolstoy himself (dying and attempting to impart some wisdom upon Valentin-as-next-generation); finally to Tolstoyan commune worker Masha (Kerry Condon, who just wants to fuck).

So: sex, money, family or wisdom? As a farce, this thing flies through its first half with a surprising levity. There is a lot of grandstanding from all the Oscar nominees, and McAvoy's able straight-manning keeps the circus grounded. In his dalliance with Masha, he goes from anxious celibacy to premature ejaculation in about as much time as it would take a Freshman under the bleachers at the homecoming game.

Bearing witness to the arguments over Tolstoy's estate, Valentin is seen and not heard - an audience surrogate, sure, but in the same way a silent jury for the contested legacy. What's fun isn't watching Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer shout at each other: it's watching them play up their opera for Valentin's sake as if to convince his "common man" of their own side's righteousness.

The picture runs out of steam, though, right as Tolstoy does. There's an interesting moment where, as Tolstoy is finally resigned to putting his signature on Vladimir's contract, it is discovered that nobody has a pen1 - nobody, that is except for our hero Valentin. Finally, he gets to play a role, and a rather important one at that. Obviously, by withholding his pen, Valentin will effectively halt the endowment of Tolstoy's work to Vladimir's scheming business pursuits and save the day for Sofya.

But he doesn't.

This, I suppose, is where the movie takes a sharp turn towards the political by offering the plebe the agency to affect the dispersion of Tolstoy's teachings. Unfortunately, the film has done little up to this point to convince me that this is for the best and, more importantly, Valentin himself had seemed to have been siding with Sofya the whole time. Around this same point, Valentin confesses his true love for Masha - a decidedly adolescent concern, I think, given his previous celibacy.

This crux of the story takes place about halfway through, after which there is another smackdown between the elderly couple that results, somehow, in Sofya trying to drown herself and Tolstoy getting on a train so he can go die of pneumonia in peace. From this point on the picture runs on fumes as Valentin scrambles to reunite the elderly couple before its too late while also trying to cling to Masha. It's a harsh tonal shift. I'm never as wrapped up in the emotions of these wackos as Hoffman seems to want me to be, especially after laughing at them for the first hour.

Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer arrives quietly shrouded in the negative publicity of the director's recent arrest and extradition on a decades-old statutory rape charge2. I'd eschew even mentioning this had Polanski not turned in a political thriller that easily reads as - at least in part - a plea of innocence. Or a plea of irrelevance, at least. This one has a definite political message, and it's summed up two-thirds of the way in by Ewan McGregor: "It's all bollocks, anyway."

MacGregor's hero goes unnamed. Like Valentin, he is hired because of his malleability into the inner circle of a controversial leader and tasked with writing down secrets. His charge is ghostwriting the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan); he is replacing a previous employee who washed up on a beach. Simultaneously investigating both Lang's alleged war crimes and his predecessor's death, The Ghost stumbles upon an intricate conspiracy involving all kinds of governmental branches and shadowy intrigue.

One key to The Ghost Writer's success is its Hitchcockian sense of humor. 'Hitchcockian' is a word that gets bandied about a lot3, but all too often we forget how funny ol' Hitch was. A dark sense of humor reminiscent of North by Northwest hangs over The Ghost Writer, keeping us giggling as The Ghost encounters creepy strangers and is tailed by faceless henchman. His predecessor was killed for digging into this very same mess, and Polanski maintains the tension with deflating one-liners. "You can't drown two bloody ghost writers. You're not kittens." He's in so far over is head that for the bulk of the running time it feels like every single character, major and minor alike, might somehow have it in for him.

The film works on several levels. As a mystery, it's tightly plotted, shot and cut with surgical precision. As political screed, it's downright nifty, sticking a pin in the overdone subject matter by hanging onto a protagonist who doesn't care about politics and exposes, ultimately, the power-mongering of the government operatives to be a facile charade. As Lang is being called to trial for war crimes in England, he's hiding out in an American sanctuary made of glass.

As a personal statement, Polanski drops only the barest hints at his own problems - just enough to ring true as a plea of not guilty by reason of decades-old relevance, the legal entanglement of spotlight-grubbing lawyers and the contagions of American cultural imperialism. It functions as an apology if you want it to: a tacile acknowledgment of crimes long-ago forgiven and a cry for a second chance. Lang is trying to write his memoirs but nobody seems interested in his side of the story; he works with a ghostwriter because he can't atone for himself.

If he ends up in jail for the rest of his life, at least he got to turn out one last masterpiece.

1.) This seems unlikely, given that everyone in the movie is constantly scratching away in their Moleskines. [back]

2.) I certainly don't want to sound like I approve of Polanski's alleged crimes, but this is a judgment best left to our justice system. I also cannot pretend to broach the level of scrutiny the case deserves; rather, I suggest finding Jeffrey Toobin's late '09 article for The New Yorker, "The Celebrity Defense". [back]

3.) ...most recently in regards to a certain other prestige thriller about a dude on an island during a storm getting in over his head... [back]

1 comment:

  1. I really want to see "The Last Station," but only after I read the book first. The book is by Jay Parini, who has, thanks to his gorgeous essays, earned himself a place at my "Five People I'd Like to Have Dinner With" table.