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Anton Chekhov's The Duel
(No longer in theaters)
I resisted applying to Please Give the catchall funny-melancholy adjective “Chekhovian” because of an actual Chekhov movie opening: Anton Chekhov’s The Duel, based on one of the author’s rare forays into longer-form fiction. The actors are Brits, and I’ll admit to a bias against them. I’ve seen too many crisp, mannered British productions in which all the line readings sounded like, “What ho, Olga Ivanovich!” Then there’s the fact that few Western peoples are as temperamentally unalike as the English and the Russians. But the Georgian-born Israeli director, Dover Koshashvili (who made the bitterly funny Late Marriage), and the screenwriter, Mary Bing, have gotten the rough texture and the pitch, the music, exactly right. From time to time the rhythms are so evocative you’d think they’d unearthed a new (early) Chekhov play.
The film takes place in a resort on the sun-soaked, insect-ridden Black Sea, where Laevsky (Andrew Scott) has escaped with his beauteous married mistress, Nadia (Fiona Glascott)—only to get word, once the romantic doldrums have set in, that her husband has died and he’s stuck with her. Broke, indolent, pickled in vodka, he’s oblivious to the fact that Nadia has been trading sexual favors for hats and luxuries. Among the locals is a tall, glowering zoologist named Von Koren (Tobias Menzies), who seems viscerally offended by Laevsky’s idleness. As Laevsky’s sanity becomes more precarious, Von Koren’s contempt edges into outright militancy. Out of all this free-floating desperation and anger comes the title exchange.
The problem with Bing’s screenplay is that it doesn’t nail the story’s ideological underpinnings—the notion that Von Koren is on the Darwinist-eugenicist cusp with an urge to rid Russia of useless Oblomov types like Laevsky. That slackens the structure and makes the duel, when it comes, slightly baffling in its motivation. And because Menzies’s Von Koren is so peripheral, our sympathy drifts to Scott, whose escalating hysteria is unexpectedly winning. Glascott plays Nadia as such a poetically confused ingénue that I’d love to see her tackle Nina in The Seagull. Though it’s not all it could be, Anton Chekhov’s The Duel is convincingly—yes—Chekhovian.