Anton Chekhov's The Duel
Details: (PG), 94 mins, In Cinemas 7 June 2012, United States, English
Synopsis: Laevsky (Andrew Scott), a young aristocrat, has run away to the Caucuses with his married mistress Nadya (Fiona Glascott), dreaming of a meaningful existence working the land. Instead, he wiles away his days drinking, gambling and lying about, occasionally stirring to work in his nominal role as government employee. Beautiful, intellectual Nadya, shunned by society, runs up debts with local merchants and coyly flirts to keep doubts at bay. But events close in on the couple. Learning Nadya's husband has died, making marriage to her feasible, Laevsky panics, desperate to flee, though she would be left penniless. Meanwhile, Nadya's flirtations have come back to haunt her.
Tasteful adaptation fails to cut through stuffy conventions.
The beautiful décor doesn’t pay off dramatically. I never felt trapped in this world, with its suffocating codes and mores
This staid, ever so tasteful version of a Chekhov novella is a nice movie concerning moral monstrousness. Everybody in it looks pretty, and behaves pretty badly. The cast is made of adulterers, rarefied and petty intellectuals, lusty and desperate lovers, and lazy civil servants. They discuss scruples and decency, Darwin, the Bible and manners. Not one of them can see the tragedy of self-deception growing about their sealed off little world. Unsurprisingly, these people and their indolent lives and personal intrigues lead to a crisis. The plot all hinges on an irony: a duel over honour and a woman. Who amongst these crippled, tortured characters will find the moral courage to stop the madness?
Filmed in Croatia, but set on the Black Sea on the Caucasian coast, the film was directed in English by Russian filmmaker Dover Kosashvilli and adapted by Mary Bing from Chekhov’s text, which was published in 1891 (and I assume the movie’s dateline is the same; everyone here is kitted out in a style akin to a 19th century opera). I haven’t read Chekhov’s story, but apparently the film’s basic narrative line is the same.
It’s a handsome production. Paul Sarossy makes the scenery so attractive you feel like you could sink into it. The interiors have a smoky lamp lit feel; all shadows and burnt umber. It’s so authentic looking you can almost smell the fish. Still, it’s all a bit stale. The cast of Irish actors are all fine, but the Chekhovian lines die on their lips much of the time. Dialogue like “Don’t speak!” “What of that?” must be tough to make sound truthful and smart at the best of times. Watching it, the beautiful décor doesn’t pay off dramatically. I never felt trapped in this world, with its suffocating codes and mores. It just felt like an old fashioned BBC dramatisation: stagey, artificial, remote.
The situation has power, though. As the story opens, Laevsky (Andrew Scott), a civil servant and a bit of a sod (a gambler and heavy drinker) receives a letter that brings news that his lover’s husband has died. For some time, he’s been keeping house on the Caucasus with this mistress, a voluptuous beauty called Nadya (Fiona Glascott). But Laevsky elects not to pass onto Nadya the fate of her absent husband. Meanwhile, Nadya, frustrated since Laevsky neglects her, lets it been known amongst the town’s upper crust that she’s ready and willing for a bit of sexual healing. Laevsky, in need of money, turns to the man who seems to be his only pal, a noble sounding doctor called Samoylenko (Niall Buggy). Looking down on all of this with deep disdain that he makes no attempt to disguise is Von Koren (Tobias Menzies), a scientist enraptured with Darwin’s evolutionary theories. Von Koren reckons that Laevsky is living proof of an inferior being and wiping him off the face of the earth would be a good thing for the evolution of the species.
It’s these two who end up in the film’s climatic duel; one instinctive, natural, the other, cerebral and heartless. The end is a black Chekhovian joke about which of these two is the more ‘complete’ human, that is, the most evolved. It’s a strong moment. But it’s not enough to elevate the movie. Perhaps what’s so disappointing about it is that it has no horror, no despair, no outrage about these lives. It feels like a museum piece. Stuffed.
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