By Tony Macklin
‘A Single Man’
There’s still a place in movies for small, literate, well acted niche movies that focus on character. In the cinema of explosions and rampant CGI, occasionally character still matters. “A Single Man” has character.
Based on a short story by English writer Christopher Isherwood, “A Single Man” is about George Falconer (Colin Firth), who is a British expatriate, college professor in Los Angeles in 1962.
When his long-time partner (Matthew Goode) dies, his world is destroyed. He isn’t even allowed to attend the funeral. George tries to fathom the wake of the death.
The plot may sound thankless, but Firth’s muted, modulated performance is worth the price of admission. It’s not showy, but it does have considerable impact. In fact, Firth has received an Oscar nomination as Best Actor. It’s the quietest performance of the nominees.
Into George’s life comes Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), a young student who is interested in the prof. Hoult played the boy in “About a Boy.” Boy, has he grown up.
There is one “showy” role. Julianne Moore broadly plays Charley, George’s best friend, a frustrated, female, bibulous lost cause.
Screenwriter and director Tom Ford — a fashion designer — gives his first feature a keen, visual look. But “A Single Man” essentially belongs to Firth. He’s the sensitive eye in the blind storm of life. His suicide attempt in a sleeping bag is an amusing tour de force.
Firth renders humanity in a life or death struggle. It’s a quiet but potent, and memorable, struggle.
‘The Last Station’
“The Last Station” is a tale of venerable conflict, deception and love. It’s an age-old, old age power struggle. But it’s not just in the room down the hall of the retirement home; it’s in Mother Russia.
Based on the last days of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, from a novel by Jay Parini, “The Last Station” is about a power triangle of Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), his wife Sofya (Helen Mirren) and interloper Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti).
In “The Last Station,” Tolstoy, one of the foremost writers in the world and the author of “War and Peace,” is the leader of a communal movement pushing for the rejection of private property and the promotion of passive resistance.
Sofya is desperately trying to hold on to the rights to her husband’s estate and the rights to his writings. Her adversary Chertkov wants the rights to go to the Tolstoyan movement. It’s an unholy war.
Tolstoy seems to want to live out his days in peace and writing. But it’s not to be. There’s too much at stake.
The voice of some sanity in the movie, between the furious bickering and rollicking yelling of Tolstoy and Sofya, is Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy). He is the one individual who seems to be a confidant of both Tolstoys, even though Chertkov has hired him as Tolstoy’s secretary to report back to him.
With a trim beard, Valentin is fresh-faced and clear-eyed. Chertkov refers to him as “our naive sentimentalist.” Valentin too falls in love, smitten and dreamy, with a young woman at the commune, Masha (Kerry Condon). Masha says to Valentin, “You’re pure.” She tells him, “You’re what I came here for.” But their relationship is tested.
Both Mirren and Plummer have received Oscar nominations for their performances in “The Last Station.” They artfully mix angst, anger and humor.
Giamatti’s role doesn’t allow him much more scope than to frown and twirl his mustache. McAvoy leavens the proceedings with amiable energy and youthfulness.
Michael Hoffman wrote the screenplay and directed with suitable aplomb. He stays out of the way of his stellar actors.
“The Last Station” juxtaposes old love and young love. Must the last station of love be dilapidated?
Leo and Sofya and Valentin and Masha do not seem to think so.
Tony Macklin, a former college English and film professor, is still foraging for truth in literature and film, in Arkansas, Las Vegas and beyond.