As high concepts go, the notion of relocating Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" would appear to be way down the totem pole. In the past year, however, he's popped up on "42nd Street" with the help of Louis Malle and Wallace Shawn and in rural Australia in "Country Life," with Sam Neill and Greta Scacchi.

As high concepts go, the notion of relocating Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” would appear to be way down the totem pole. In the past year, however, he’s popped up on “42nd Street” with the help of Louis Malle and Wallace Shawn and in rural Australia in “Country Life,” with Sam Neill and Greta Scacchi.

In “August,” Anthony Hopkins has decided to transpose the action to his native Wales, circa 1890, for his screen directing debut. The good news is that the Chekhovian class system works just fine for that corner of the British Isles. But that’s as good as it gets. Commercially and artistically, this new rendition is no better or worse than the others and fated for the same modest, specialized box office of the prior outings. Ancillary revenue will doubtless be muted by the plethora of “Vanyas,” recent and vintage, already available.

The essential story remains intact. The seeming wastrel Ieuan Davis (Hopkins) manages the country estate of his brother-in-law, the eminent Professor Blathwaite (Leslie Phillips). The professor has arrived for his annual summer stay with his young second wife (Kate Burton) — the object of attention for both Ieuan and the otherwise highly moral Dr. Lloyd (Gawn Grainger). Blathwaite is a fascinating vessel of bluster and emotional blindness.

The seasonal idyll is a deft combination of high drama and a keenly observed comedy of manners — or of the manor. Its endurance as a classic of the stage is readily understandable. Chekhov draws rich characters, strong emotions and darkly drawn humor from the setting and circumstance.

The material is so ideally suited to the boards, one suspects it’s one play that will always fall short of a truly satisfying screen version. Playwright Julian Mitchell’s adaptation retains the original author’s love and craft of language. But that language is stage dialogue, in which the characters have far too many moments of self-realization that come off as stiff and awkward on the bigscreen.

Hopkins effects a good balancebetween plush interiors and natural settings, imbuing the piece with a visual grace that is amplified by a haunting score. The latter reveals a hitherto unknown talent on the part of the actor.

The film is a thoroughly respectable translation, and Hopkins has a firm grasp of text and subtext. It’s well performed by a fine ensemble cast, although the director indulges himself a tad as an actor. Still, pic retains the quality of something unfinished. With such a rich array of “Vanyas” past, it’s simply not enough to present another yeomanlike version. “August” is short of that one flash of novel inspiration it desperately needs to stand apart from the crowd.

August

Production

A Samuel Goldwyn release of a Majestic Films/Newcomm and Granada presentation. Produced by June Wyndham Davies, Pippa Cross. Executive producers, Steve Morrison, Guy East. Co-producer, Janette Day. Directed by Anthony Hopkins. Screenplay, Julian Mitchell, based on "Uncle Vanya" by Anton Chekhov and adapted from the play "August" by Mitchell.

Crew

Camera (Metrocolor), Robin Vidgeon; editor, Edward Mansell; music, Hopkins; production design, Eileen Diss; costume design, Dany Everett; sound (Dolby), Rudi Buckle; assistant director, Nick Heckstall-Smith; casting, Carolyn Bartlett, Cheryl Nance, Wally Byatt. Reviewed at Sony Studios, Culver City, April 4, 1996. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 93 min.

With

Ieuan Davies - Anthony Hopkins
Helen Blathwaite - Kate Burton
Professor Alexander Blathwaite - Leslie Phillips
Dr. Michael Lloyd - Gawn Grainger
Sian Blathwaite - Rhian Morgan
Thomas (Pocky) Prosser - Hugh Lloyd
Mair Davies - Rhoda Lewis
Gwen - Menna Trussler

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