Chekhov casts a magical spell over Russian filmmakers, inspiring them to ever greater cinematic heights. Apparently this alchemy applies even to a Georgia-born, Israel-raised helmer shooting an English-language version of a Chekhov novella with mostly Irish actors in Croatia. But unlike most other adaptations, which are tinged with melancholy, Dover Kosashvili’s glorious costumer “Anton Chekhov’s The Duel,” while remaining faithful to its source, places its febrile “Moscow Hamlet” in surroundings so vibrant that tragedy seems an indulgence. Preeming today at Gotham’s Film Forum, this worthy follow-up to Kosashvili’s brilliant “Late Marriage” should delight auds worldwide.
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 sign some papers in his nominal role as government employee. Beautiful, intellectual Nadya, shunned by society and prone to fevers, 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. In one of pic’s few indoor social gatherings, her demanding swains physically hem her in on all sides while Laevsky, prey to his own demons, delivers a sobbing, barking emotional meltdown.
Laevsky’s inbred neurotic sensibility enrages the protofascist rationalism of visiting zoologist Von Koren (Tobias Menzies). Judging Laevsky’s very being to constitute a menace to the survival of the species, Von Koren finagles him into a duel that will radically transform all those involved.
Kosashvili invests his characters with a level of awareness and an inherent integrity they do not always live up to, framing them amid a natural splendor to which they are only intermittently attuned. (Even Laevsky’s slovenly kept house opens onto a garden, and the climactic duel transpires against a magnificent oceanside grotto.) Laevsky’s hysteria stems partly from regret over his indolence and cowardice; similarly, Nadya’s coquettish narcissism registers as a self-defeating revolt against powerlessness.
But the protagonists’ melodramatic obsessions occupy a relatively narrow field on a much larger canvas. Von Koren’s triumphant catch of an octopus sets a nearby trio of sunbathing girls shuddering and giggling. White-uniformed soldiers smartly parade down the streets, and children weave freely in and out among their elders. The good doctor Samoylenko (Niall Buggy), who plays a crucial role in the ongoing drama, is seen happily chopping vegetables in his kitchen. All is ready for the final epiphany.
Thesps form a perfectly self-contained ensemble in their isolated community, with major and minor roles given balanced prominence.
Tech credits are superb, from Atom Egoyan regular Paul Sarossy’s magisterial lensing to Ivo Husnjak’s evocative production design and Sergio Ballo’s elegant, understated costuming.