ANTON CHEKHOV’S THE DUEL
US, 2010, 95 minutes, Colour.
Andrew Scott, Fiona Glascott, Tobias Menzies, Niall Buggy.
Directed by Dover Koshashvili.
The film is also advertised as Anton Chekhov’s The Duel. It is based on a Chekhov novella and takes us into Chekhov land, the Russian Caucasus of the 19th century. The beautiful photography, however, offers the landscapes and waterscapes of Croatia, standing in. And, the film is certainly beautiful to look at, capturing the look of a small lakeside town, the elegance of the décor and costumes of the period.
There is a duel and it comes late in the film, not so much a shooting duel, though shots are fired, but a jolting experience, moral and emotional, for the two protagonists. It also provides a jolt for audience sympathies and a questioning of our understanding of the two men involved.
One is a government official who increasingly resents his ‘exile’ to this remote town where he finds no culture. Not that he is particularly cultured himself. He has a mistress who has opted to leave her husband for this life where she is not welcomed by most people and lives a self-indulgent life, unhappy with her husband’s lack of attention. He drinks, plays cards with cronies, does little work and wanders around in self-pity. He is played convincingly by Andrew Scott (distractingly resembling actor Mark Ruffalo).
The other protagonist is a self-confident scientist who researches and is about to sail for Africa. He despises the government official and is not loth to express his opinions and condemnations. He seems to relish the prospect of the duel even if shots are to be fired only into the air.
The film has an average running time, so there is time to respond to the characters and their behaviour and their dilemmas, without spending a lot of time contemplating them (as would happen in a Russian version of the story). There is a great deal of detail: visiting a hat shop, the card games, a rendezvous with the police captain, summer swimming in the lake, a buffet meal, kitchen activities, a doctor’s visit…
The government official is not a likeable man, wanting to escape back to Moscow, not having the resources to do this, angry with his mistress, feeling that she is clinging to him. But, being forced into the duel and standing exposed to possible death, has a powerful influence on him. The scientist, with whom we have to agree in his criticisms, also undergoes an experience as he stands with his loaded gun, the potential to kill a man. The duel undermines his certainties.
Fiona Glascott is the beautiful and fickle mistress. Tobias Menzies is the scientist. The director, now from Israel, was born in the republic of Georgia.
1. The work of Chekhov? Novels and plays? His world, 19th century Russia? Middle and upper classes? The narrow focus? Yet universal themes?
2. Croatia standing in for Russia, the town, the beauty of the countryside, the lake, the mountains, the cave for the duel? The musical score?
3. The director from Israel, an American production, the performers from the UK and Ireland? Making Chekhov credible in English?
4. The title’s focus, on the duel? Audience expectation of the duel?
5. The 19th century, the town, ordinary, homes and shops, the orthodox religious background and the clergy? The tourism, the summer, the swimming? Social life of the town?
6. The small town, isolated, the distance from Moscow and St Petersburg? The moral values – and the hypocrisy?
7. The portrait of Laevsky? His character, age, his work as a government official, feeling he was living in exile, the lack of culture, his relationship with his mistress, falling out of love with her, fearing she would demand marriage, his being bored, drinking, playing cards every night, teaching people how to play, lazy and avoiding his work? The opening and the fruit and the knives? His going swimming, wandering the town? His complaints about his situation, about his mistress? Complaining to the doctor? His friends, the card games? His wanting to leave, get the money, asking the doctor to get money? His seizure and the aftermath?
8. Nadia, having left her husband, her life in the provinces, Laevsky falling out of love with her, learning of her husband’s death? In the hat shop, wilful, the payment? People kowtowing to her? Maria, socialising with her even though disapproving of the situation? Maria urging her to marry, threatening to cut her off? Her illness, treatment by the doctor? Going swimming? The policeman and his pressures? The young suitor? The policeman pressurising her, Laevsky catching her? Her dismay?
9. Von Koren, a visitor to the town, scientific background, his investigations, his strong opinions, talking with the doctor, the strong condemnation of Laevsky? Audiences agreeing with him?
10. The card-playing partners, their supporting Laevsky?
11. The policeman, the pressure on Nadia? The suitor waiting for her, his betraying her?
12. The doctor, his work, upper class, being asked for money, his asking Von Koren? His work in the kitchen?
13. The challenge to the duel, the confrontation between Von Koren and Laevsky? The seconds? The duel itself, the cave, the early morning, the pacing out, the guns? Laevsky firing into the air? Standing, the possibility of i killed? Von Koren and his aiming at Laevsky? Missing him – purposely or not?
14. The new awareness for Laevsky, having confronted death, the meaning of his life? The reconciliation with Nadia? Going to the wharf to see Von Koren off? Shaking hands?
15. A change in the situation – or would it return to what it was before?