Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Chekhov’s The Duel

Russians have always had issues with the Caucuses. During Anton Chekhov’s day, they were the sleepy backwater provinces of the Russian Empire, where careers went to die. Despite the beautiful natural scenery, a group of Russians are rather embarrassed to find themselves on the Black Sea. Yet they mostly try to keep up appearances in Georgian-born Israeli director Dover Kosashvili’s English language adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Duel, which opens today in New York.

Nadyezhda Fyodorovna is a scandalous woman. She left her husband to live in sin with her lover, Ivan Andreitch Laevsky, a petty government official and general lay-about. Unfortunately, having grown bored with the romantically inclined Nadya, Laevsky hopes to drop her, despite the ruinous position that would leave her in.

The rakish Laevsky has lured most of the men in town into his hard-drinking, card playing circle, but the zoologist Von Koren is an exception. He has nothing but contempt for Laevsky and is not shy is saying so. As the title clearly foreshadows, things will definitely come to a head between the two men.

Frequently described as the Chekhov story most like his plays, “The Duel” was also his longest. It features large cast of characters trying to maintain their social status in what was essentially the lint-collecting navel of late Czarist Russia. Despite its relative length, its constitution is still very much the stuff of short fiction, relying more on setting and character than one-thing-after-another plotting. Though not exactly O. Henry, Chekhov also pulls an ironic switch on how his characters ultimately conduct themselves that Kosashvili deftly handles in turn.

Fiona Glascott is quietly compelling and ultimately quite fearless in a surprisingly frank performance. Andrew Scott nails indolence and also suggests deeper human frailty as Laevsky. However, perhaps the greatest standout is Tobias Menzies as the severe Von Koren, convincingly steadfast, yet so wrong in his rightness.

Duel follows squarely in the Merchant-Ivory tradition of elegant literary adaptation, but with a fair bit of female nudity thrown in for added appeal. Paul Sarossy’s radiant cinematography makes the Croatian stand-in for the Caucasian coastline gleam with beauty. The costumes and sets are equally elegant, evoking the graceful idleness of a pre-Revolutionary, pre-industrial time gone by.

An undeniably handsome production, Duel is in fact much like James Ivory’s City of Your Final Destination, in that both are mature films that lull viewers with their seductive rhythms rather than dazzling them with dramatic pyrotechnics. A small but memorable film, it opens today (4/28) at the Film Forum.