Featuring: Andrew Scott, Fiona Glascott, Tobias Menzies, Niall Buggy
Director: Dover Kosashvili
Writer: Mary Bing
Australian release date: June 7, 2012
Laevsky (Andrew Scott) leads a profligate and indolent life in a seaside town in the Caucasus, neglecting his government position and wiling away his days drinking, bathing, lunching, impressing the locals with his cynicism, education and refined intellect, playing cards until late, then stumbling home drunk to his mistress Nadya (Fiona Glascott). He has fallen far short of the noble rural farming ideal he had envisaged when he whisked Nadya away from Moscow and her husband. Not only has his notion of making an honest living from the sweat of his brow and toil of his hands come to nothing, but he no longer loves Nadya.
Worse, he has just received a letter advising of the death of Nadya’s husband, but has withheld the news from her out of fear that she will now expect and insist on marriage. In fact, Nadya is less devoted to him than he assumes. She is a fine-looking woman in her physical prime, well aware of her feminine power and willing to exploit and test it.
Laevsky decides he must away, to freedom and the city life he now pines for! Problem is, he’s in debt and has no money to make good his escape. He begs for a loan from his affable doctor friend Samoylenko (Niall Buggy), who disapproves of his plans but reluctantly agrees. However, Samoylenko himself is short of funds and borrows from Von Koren (Tobias Menzies), a man of science and committed Darwinist newly arrived in the town.
Von Koren despises Laevsky for his pretentiousness and laziness, and for the bad influence he has had on the locals. Indeed, he believes Laevsky is a poor specimen of humanity whose eradication would be in the interests of evolutionary progression! When an opportunity comes up to challenge Laevsky to a duel, Von Koren seizes it. The locals are appalled and try to talk him out of it, but Von Koren sees himself as an agent of ‘natural selection’ and will not be swayed.
The duel goes ahead, but with unforeseen consequences for all.
The producers of this film adaptation of The Duel have Howard’s Way and Remains Of The Day (one of my all-time favourites) on their CV. As a fan of period pieces and Chekhov, then, my expectations were high. Uh oh…
First the things that worked.
The cinematography is exquisite. Every scene is beautifully composed, and the choreography works in perfect harmony with the camera. Sheer poetry at the high points, but always superb.
The costuming is wonderfully evocative of the era. Nadya, particularly, could have walked straight out of Monet’s picnic painting. Whoops – I know I’ve flitted across to France, but am I even in the right period? My history is not good. Whatever, I stick by the observation for good or ill…have a look at this still from the movie and tell me you don’t agree:
Dodgy as my sense of historical chronology undoubtedly is, the environmental and human milieu recreated here is exactly as I imagine it from reading Chekhov. The movie was shot in Croatia, not the Caucasus, but presents as Chekhov territory through and through. It is rare, in my experience, for a film adaptation to so precisely match one’s imaginative ‘visual’ recall of the source literary work.
The performances, too, are universally excellent.
There is something vital missing here, though. While everything is close to perfect visually, dramatically the work is a letdown due to a flawed and unfocussed script.
The motivations of the characters are sometimes unclear. For example, the reasons for Von Koren’s extreme dislike of Laevsky are not well canvassed. Von Koren’s Darwinism and the dangerously fascist form it assumes for him are glossed over. This is a crucial oversight, since it compromises the narrative: a viewer not familiar with Chekhov’s novella may struggle to understand why Von Koren appears so intent on killing Laevsky in the duel, or even in manipulating him into taking part in it in the first place. Further, a proper understanding of Von Koren’s political and world view (and Laevsky’s) is essential to fully appreciating the irony of the ending. No more on that; this is a spoiler-free zone.
Further, the psychology of the characters is not always well delineated. Laevsky and Nadya’s relationship, especially, is mystifying at times. Laevsky claims to have fallen out of love with his mistress, yet is apparently driven so wild by an urgent passion for her that he rips off her new dress to get at the ripe fruit within! In response, she heaves with mounting desire. This is hardly consistent with the behaviour of a couple who have lost interest in each other.
Then there is the tone. It’s wrong. That is, it is not true to the spirit of Chekhov’s novella, which sparkles with satirical wit. He is merciless in lampooning the stereotypes of the day, sparing none of the main characters (or even the minor ones!). He has no favourites – they all cop his irreverent and often hilarious treatment, much to the reader’s benefit. This delectable sense of wicked fun in Chekhov’s telling of the story is all but missing from the movie, although there are some quiet chuckles to be had in places.
Of course, film is a very different medium from literature, and any adaptation must necessarily deviate from the source material, but an important addendum is that omissions and modifications should not compromise the movie itself.
A scene in which Laevsky lies prone and naked while his maid flagellates him is a case in point. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I recall nothing like this in the original (I confess, though, it’s a long while since I read it). That’s not the issue, though. The problem is the flagellation scene is a crude and rather clumsy metaphor for Laevsky’s self-loathing and apparent sexual repression, and tonally inappropriate.
Chekhov is never crude or hamfisted like this. It’s unfortunate that elements of the script should grate thus, when the filmmakers have otherwise succeeded so brilliantly in faithfully adapting the novella to the screen.
If you’re into period pieces, this visually lush, beautifully filmed and well-performed work is worth the price of a ticket. If you’re into Chekhov, I’m not sure you’ll be all that thrilled with what’s on offer here.
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