Chekhov has never seemed such a long haul as in this awkward adaptation of “The Cherry Orchard” by veteran director Michael Cacoyannis, 77, who’s assembled a good roster of names but ones that are not necessarily right for their roles. Not helped by stolid helming, and with minimal sense of flow across the broad arc of the story, this “Orchard” looks to be cut down early in its theatrical career.
In the most imaginative moment of his adaptation, Cacoyannis invents a 10 -minute pre-credits sequence, set in 1900 Paris, showing Anya (Tushka Bergen) arriving to bring her mother, the ethereal and slightly dotty Lyubov (Charlotte Rampling), back to their debt-ridden family estate outside Moscow. By opening this way, the picture loses the atmospheric opening of the original, in which Lyubov & Co. arrive home in the middle of the night, but does show something of the attractions of la vie Parisienne that Lyubov left behind.
Unfortunately, it immediately exposes one of the pic’s main casting weaknesses: Rampling simply doesn’t have the presence for the role of Lyubov and too often looks like she’s adopting poses. When the picture moves to Russia (convincingly enough doubled by Bulgaria), the miscasting grows exponentially. As Lyubov’s foster daughter, Varya, who runs the manse, Katrin Cartlidge looks and sounds out of place and time, with modulated dialogue not sitting well in her mouth; as Lopahin, the declasse businessman who tries vainly to help the family out of its mire of debt, Owen Teale lacks the rough edges to make his character convincing, even though he’s among the best of the cast at handling Chekhov’s dialogue.
Only Alan Bates, as Lyubov’s lackadaisical brother, Gaev, manages his lines with ease and looks right in his role, drifting in and out of scenes to give the movie, briefly, some class. In smaller roles, Frances de la Tour and Michael Gough overact as a performer and butler, and most of the younger thesps — Melanie Lynskey as a maid, Andrew Howard as the proto-revolutionary Trofimov — are out of their depth.
Tackling this most difficult of playwrights to bring off onscreen, Cacoyannis manages some occasionally striking moments, such as the family shaken by a ghostly sound during their afternoon stroll, and in its final reels the film achieves a typically Chekhovian dying fall. But till then there’s been so little internal rhythm in scenes, or sense of connection between them, that it’s too little, too late.
Production design and costuming are excellent, with a real period look. Use of Tchaikovsky piano excerpts instead of an original score is distracting, as if someone is perpetually doodling on the keyboard in the next room.