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Anton Chekhov's The Duel
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by Jay Seaver

"A movie about ennui - but that does it a disservice."
4 stars

I cannot claim any degree of expertise on how "The Duel" works as an adaptation of Anton Chekov's source material; I am just educated enough to know that Chekhov is considered one of the world's great playwrights but not enough to know much more than that. I suspect that I am not alone in this, for better or worse, so those in a similar situation can take me at my word when I saw that this adaptation of his novella is, at least, a good movie for us: It's entertaining, though it does expect a little effort on the audience's part.

Laevsky (Andrew Scott) is an idle man. He is currently idling in the Crimea, neglecting some sort of official posting, sharing his home and his bed with Nadia (Fiona Glascott), who has left behind a husband in St. Petersberg. He's friendly with army medic Samoylenko (Niall Buggy) and fellow expatriot Sheshkovsky (Nicholas Rowe), but has the overt disdain of others, such as naturalist Von Koren (Tobias Menzies). He is settling steadily into debt and ennui when he receives a letter from back home, stating that his married love is now a widow. That's quite unsettling, as she may want to marry if she finds out, and he truthfully isn't quite that fond of her.

Though the title suggests decisive action, The Duel is rather focused on the opposite. It is full of characters progressing from day to day on inertia, not taking action until backed into a corner, and even then finding it rather distasteful. It's a tale of 19th Century aristocrats, not modern slackers, so there are intrigues of reputation and standing. How much that was the case in Chekhov's original story, I don't know, but in Mary Bing's script, it's a very well-balanced combination of comedic laziness and moralistic judgment, the wispiest of plots to make sure that what we're watching feels like a story rather than just observation.

A script that focuses on idleness offers an equal measure of challenges and opportunities to its cast, which the actors by and large take good advantage of. Andrew Scott, for instance, must play a fairly unpleasant protagonist, a malingerer who doesn't even make up for his lack of productive activity with wit. His Laevsky is funny, and could be dropped into a farce without much change, but he fits perfectly well into this straight-faced story. There's a slight hint of charm to him, but it's properly difficult to isolate. Fiona Glascott's Nadia, meanwhile, is vain and perhaps somewhat vacuous, but the portrayal may be two layers deep, depending on how much of Nadia is a woman too beautiful to have ever needed to act on her own and how much is a woman who knows just how to leverage that beauty. Either way, Glascott makes an intriguing character out of her. Tobias Menzies, meanwhile, finds the spot that overlaps nobility and arrogance in showing Von Koren's disdain for Laevsky, while Michelle Fairley does something similar as the woman who opts to put pressure on Nadia to be more respectable

Director Dover Koshashvili and his crew pull together a beautiful picture. Shooting in one of those Eastern European towns that apparently hasn't changed noticeably in a hundred years or so, he puts the heat on screen, letting us see how it generates both torpor and tension. He works hand in hand with Bing's script to keep our interest even when nothing much seems to be happening, doing an unusually good job in letting us focus on things in the background to the main story, using them to build the setting even if they don't tie back into Laevsky's and Nadia's narrative directly. Also, the spot where the titular duel occurs is a great find (enough to be specifically mentioned in the credits), and it must have been a real pain to shoot in, even considering the capabilities of today's digital cameras.

While sexy and frequently intriguing, "The Duel" isn't an erotic thriller; it's a movie that demands the audience's close attention and may seem to fall short if a person comes to it looking for visceral surface excitement. Still, if you're willing to give it your complete attention, it will likely be rewarding - even if you (like me) are not familiar with the source material.

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originally posted: 10/07/10 10:35:50
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  28-Apr-2010 (NR)
  DVD: 24-May-2011


  DVD: 24-May-2011

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