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"Anton Chekhov's The Duel": A successful literary adaptation 

Wednesday, Jul 21 2010

Celebrants of the bourgeoisie love Anton Chekhov in part because he dignifies the inconsequential lives of a superfluous class. There's more than that; as noted by Vladimir Nabokov, Chekhov wrote sad books that "only a reader with a sense of humor can really appreciate." As faithfully adapted from the original novella by Mary Bing and crisply paced by Israeli director Dover Koshashvili, Anton Chekhov's The Duel comes about as close to soap-opera passion as the virtuoso of wistful lethargy is likely to get.

Perhaps "comic opera" is the operative term: Adultery, betrayal, blackmail, drunken antics, and all manner of peculiar impulse behavior enliven the summery indolence of a Black Sea backwater. Laevsky (Andrew Scott), an agitated, intellectual young wastrel, is frantically attempting to ditch Nadia (Fiona Glascott), the vain, lazily bovine married woman whom, in a paroxysm of "back to the land"–ism, he persuaded to run away with him to the wilds of the Caucasus.

Laevsky and Nadia are perfectly ill-matched in their respective inability to cope with crisis. As the discarded mistress becomes increasingly lost, her disheveled lover grows hysterically dissolute. Meanwhile, their tragicomic floundering is observed by three professionals — a contemptuous zoologist with a particular animus for Laevsky; the kindly, if dimwitted, town doctor; and a timid deacon — each of whom embodies a particular moral position. The largely verbal drama is played out over a series of comic social disasters to climax with the eponymous affaire d'honneur — at once the height of irrationality and, as emotional fire meets intellectual ice, the logical culmination of the movie's ongoing narrative argument.

An American production, shot in English on the Croatian coast with a mainly Anglo-Irish cast, The Duel is intelligently staged and impeccably crafted. Although coproducer Donald Rosenfeld is a long-time Merchant Ivory associate, this potentially middlebrow exercise is neither anemic nor unduly genteel. The period atmosphere is sensuous; the postcard setting feels lived-in. Koshashvili, whose 2001 Late Marriage was a superbly volatile generational farce, gives the Masterpiece Theater tradition a welcome zetz.

Like Late Marriage, The Duel features a memorable female turn, albeit here one of transcendent passivity. Glascott's Nadia is a foamy cocktail of rosy cheeks, ruby lips, overflowing bodice ... and numbing affect. Yet, thanks to Glascott's ineffable sadness, this vulgar creature, too, has a soul — maybe even a Russian soul. In any case, The Duel is the most successful literary adaptation I've seen since Pascal Ferran's 2006 Lady Chatterley.

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J. Hoberman


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