Update: This post was updated at 9:35 a.m. to correct an editing error related to plot summary.
I have no grand statements to make about the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov, his style, or his prolific body of work, with which I’m admittedly largely unfamiliar. I’ve read a few of his short stories in the past, which probably puts me on equal footing with the majority of people who will see writer Mary Bing and director Dover Koshashvili’s film, Anton Chekhov’s The Duel.
We’re also equal in that none of us has been privy to even a trailer of the film, as none exists online. It sneaks up on us both on marquees and as its story patiently unfolds onscreen (in English).
Filmed in Croatia to represent a sleepy seaside retreat in the Russian Caucasus around an unspecified, late 19th-century date, the film is first enchanting through its scenic splendor. Gorgeous buildings are cracked, exposing bricks and underlying materials, which could be argued as a visual metaphor for fragile characters whose deepest emotions are similarly on display. The placid sea matches an utterly languid atmosphere where ladies flit about in froofy hats, small bands of soldiers march about for some reason, men drink and play cards, and every interior shot of someone’s home makes you wish you could visit just to run your cheek against the couch fabric. (It’s pretty.)
Our protagonist is Laevsky, played by Andrew Scott, one of the many Irish members of the cast. Laevsky is lazy, pathetic and generally reprehensible for many character flaws. But he’s also temperamental, nervous and consumed by his romantic situation. In certain scenes, he reminds me of a breakout, fuck-up Mark Ruffalo in You Can Count on Me. A guy who just can’t get it together.
Laevsky’s lover is Nadia (Fiona Glascott), a woman who we learn early on has just lost her cuckold of a husband. The only problem is that she doesn't hear the news until well into the story because Laevsky doesn’t pass along the letter that tells her so. The reason: He’s fallen somewhat out of love with her and doesn’t really wish to be responsible for her, though they've been living together openly for quite some time. Nadia, who scandalously “holds supper at all hours,” according to her horrified friend, is subsequently harassed in some form or another by almost every suitor in town.
But their conflict isn’t the duel to which the plot drives. It’s that pesky, too-smart, too-arrogant, too-smug Von Koren (Tobias Menzies, Rome, MI-5) who prattles on about too many Darwinian principles — survival of the fittest and the like — that ultimately forces Laevsky to pistols in the sand. Menzies is excellent, and the only actor in the film American audiences might recognize.
Whereas not much actually happens on the surface of the film, everything changes for the characters. It’s a subtle story of simmering (and boiling) moods, unrequited love, dysfunctional love, scornful judgment, apathy, pity and ultimately, fear. It’s a character study, a period piece, and though unfamiliar in setting and circumstance for us, there’s a bit of trapped and forlorn Laevsky somewhere in most of our pasts that helps us identify with him and the story’s arc.
My presumption — again, being no Chekhov expert — is that it’s this mastery of conflicted character that has canonized his works. This well-constructed, thoughtful adaptation does them, or at least The Duel, justice.