Reviewer: James Van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ****
Back in the spring of 2002, a film from USSR-born Israeli writer/director Dover Kosashvili opened in New York City, later arriving on DVD and cable channels. Late Marriage (Hatuna Meuheret) -- an enormously sexual, smart and angry broadside against Israeli fundamentalism -- knocked the socks off a lot of us, though it may have appeared at the time that its strong and sexy leading man Lior Askenazi (Walk on Water) was the linchpin many of us remembered most. For his part, Kosashvili went on to make Matana MiShamayim (English title: Gift from Above) in 2003, which, though nominated for eleven Israeli Film Academy awards, was not much seen outside its home country.
Now comes this director's Anton Chekhov's The Duel (with a screenplay by the film's co-producer Mary Bing), an English-language adaptation of the Russian master's novella. Cast with some lesser-known but top-flight U.K.talent, the movie takes place in the Caucuses (for which Croatia proves a sumptuous stand-in) and details the plight of a young aristocrat (Laevsky, whose behavior and attitude define the term ne'er-do-well), his lively and attractive mistress (Nadya, toward whom he is feeling less and less kindly disposed), a highly intelligent and somewhat condescending scientist (Von Koren, who has taken an intense dislike to Laevsky) plus other assorted friends and neighbors.
Once you get past their accents, this cast struck me as doing the best job I have yet seen of Irish, Brits and Scots playing Chekhov's Russians. Each actor manages to capture, via languid gesture and subtle intonation, that peculiar combination of bored entitlement and barely perceptible unease that likely attends a time in which enormous political/social/economic change is developing. And Kosashvili's direction keeps the camera keenly attuned to this: Nothing is hammered home, but it’s all there. (I suspect this director is more than a little proficient in the English language because his cast nails every moment, large and small, so expertly that he had to have been able to coach them--as talented as they may be--regarding what he wanted from them during at least some of those moments.)
Andrew Scott, as the little twat Laevsky, will have you wanting to throttle him in no time. This actor's spectacular talent at finding innumerable ways to be insufferably annoying (until -- and this is Chekhov's great gift for rich, humane characterization -- you actually begin to love him for it) is something to see -- as is his bizarre, nervous breakdown over a chess board. Tobias Menzies as Von Koren, brings both sturdiness and stud-liness to his role, his jealousy for Laevsky's station and what the man gets away with kept barely, but quite handsomely, in check. Fiona Glasgott turns Nadya into a whirlwind of contradiction: loving, needy, highly sexual, and finally more vulnerable than either we or she suspects. In the supporting cast, Niall Buggy makes a sensible, kindly doctor, while Michelle Fairley (now on "Game of Thrones") captures both the imperiousness and fear of an important lady of the town, who, in one of the movie's strongest scenes, gives Nadya a sudden and nasty ultimatum.
As is often the case in Chekhov, characters talk at, rather than to, one another -- with the expected consequences. Indirection is the order of the day, and when something goes wrong, well... blame the servants. If sexuality is closer to the surface here than in Anton's turn-of-the-century time, what we see is still light years away from the usual panting and glossy nudity we're used to observing on film. The many details we catch along the way -- from the serving of soup to some flirting and bargaining in a millinery shop -- are captured succinctly, and the location cinematography makes Croatia look gorgeous.
The friend I watched the film with, having just read the novella upon which the film is based, felt that screenplay did not work very well. Not having read the novella myself, I can only say that the film held me rapt from scene one. By its melancholy finale, I also felt that real change, as well as some growth, had occurred for our onscreen friends. And Kosashvili, I think, is slowly amassing quite a resume.
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