Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri May 21, 2010 3:02 pm 
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This surprisingly fine literary adaptation of a Chekhov novella is an American production shot in English, in Croatia, with Irish actors, from a screenplay by an English writer, directed by a Georgia-born Israeli -- and it all works splendidly. Anton Chekhov's The Duel begins as if it's going to be a Merchant-Ivory style posh-but-bland British costume piece. With its French Impressionist assemblages of 19th-century people out-of-doors in a scorching summer in the Caucasus (lensed by Atom Egoyan regular Paul Sarossy) it's probably too sunny and beautiful for a Chekhov novella about two bored and unhinged young men fighting a duel out in the sticks. But that impression fades when Laevsky (Andrew Scott, impressive) fills the screen as the dissolute, hysterical, terribly bored aristocrat who's the central figure of the piece. Laevsky is a lazy civil servant, out of cash, living with another man's wife, gambling, drinking and very occasionally signing documents. The fantasy behind his self-imposed exile was to get out of Moscow and back to the land, and farm. It hasn't happened.

The film jump-cuts around, expressing Laevsky's wild confusion. He's fed up -- but not always -- he changes his mind every moment -- with his adulterous paramour Nadia (Fiona Glascott), another spoiled one, running up bills at shops for clothes that only make her stand out more to the disapproving provincial ladies, only one of whom receives this incompetent adventuress. She meanwhile is pursued by a macho police officer and a younger man whom her low self esteem has led her to flirt with, though their attentions only make her feel trapped.

Laevsky's best friend is a weak but decent older man, a doctor, Samoylenko (Niall Buggy), and his greatest enemy is a visiting zoologist, a proto-fascist and Darwinian, Von Koren (Tobias Menzies). I take it that clinging to the archaic custom of the duel is to be seen as an excuse for some people, like Von Koren, to imagine they may wipe out undesirables, inferior men who, in Darwinian terms, ought not to survive anyway. But Von Koren is a self-important martinet who's also more a theoretician than a realist, and the hard fact of dueling pistols by a waterfall at dawn is more than his theories can stand. No one is as crazy or as sane as he thinks he is in this story, and Koshashvili and writer Mary Bing create a sense of mental instability everywhere amid stable surroundings and actions that have consequences. That is the meaning of a duel: being held accountable. But in Russian stories it seems the men thus challenged are often the vague and confused kind, those least prepared for consequences.

Penniless from his gambling, Laevsky commands Samoylenko to loan him money so he can run off to Petersburg and escape from Nadia and the provincial nightmare. But the good doctor must borrow the money in turn from Von Koren, who sets the condition that he will give it only if Laevsky sends Nadia along first -- a Catch 22. When Nadia's husband dies, leaving Laevsky free to marry her, he feels all the more trapped and desperate to flee.The men clash, as Von Koren wants, and he challenges the by now crazed Laevsky to the duel, which changes everything for the two men.

The film keeps alive a sense of a multitude of characters as three-dimensional, without ever seeming to be in a hurry. This is another of its neat tricks: there are all these people, a whole social scene kept constantly alive, and yet in some way there is only the remarkable Andrew Scott as a man not quite like anybody else we've seen before. The screenplay is so succinct and the acting and direction are so seamless if feels like The Duel needs to be watched multiple times. One time is enough to forget the overdone and self-conscious Tolstoy story, The Last Station. This shows a movie about 19th-century Russia with Brits can work wonderfully after all.

J. Hoberman has said this is the best literary adaptation on film that he's seen since Pascale Ferran's Lady Chatterley. I can't say, because I have not read this novella, but it has a magical way of emerging from all the mediocre films it looks like into something quite itself.

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