Anton Chekhov’s The Duel

Review by © Jane Freebury

Having a tilt at adapting classic literature to film has its risks and may never satisfy folks who feel the results should perfectly mirror the prose. Maybe it presents an even greater risk to the relatively unknown filmmaker, though Cary Fukunaga did a lovely job of Jane Eyre last year. Michael Winterbottom’s Jude still stands up well and I’m hanging out for British director Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights.

A short story is a safer bet, though. It’s a form that really lends itself to the feature film. Anton Chekhov’s novella The Duel, published in the late 19th century, would seem to fit the bill and relatively unknown writer-director Dover Koshashvili could be just the man for this adaptation because the book is set in his Georgian homelands in the Caucasus.

The story unfolds in a sleepy seaside hamlet, a far-flung outpost of the Russian empire. Perched on the rim of a vast body of water it seems to float on the edge of nowhere. A small community of transients has gathered there. They go swimming, visit the blind masseur, troop out on picnics, and gossip about other people’s business. Among them is a hardcore of semi-permanent visitors, some in self-imposed exile. They present, of course, the most interesting character study.

There’s the morose minor official Laevsky (Andrew Scott) who has landed in town with his married mistress Nadia (Fiona Glascott). He has rid himself of most personal or professional responsibilities and spends his time with other dissolute types, drunk or playing cards. What else is there to do in the insufferable heat, with no society? Inevitably, he ends up on a collision course with the biologist and Darwinist Von Koren (Tobias Menzies) who has certain views on ‘honour’.

The past finally catches up with Laevsky with the news that Nadia’s cuckolded husband has died. He doesn’t pass it on because he will feel pressured to marry her. Nadia’s beauty and coquetry have meanwhile inflamed several male admirers to proposition her and she succumbs in her confusion. Still Laevsky doesn’t get it.

Little of consequence actually happens in this roundabout of social interaction. The pleasures are in the subtle observations on the contradictions that are human nature – and in the beautiful images captured by cinematographer Paul Sarossy.

There are pistols at twenty paces but this is a clash sensibilities and ideas, at a time when Europe was about the see the end of the old order and old ways of thinking. Science was on the way in and the certainties of religion were on the way out. Like the times, the film has one foot within the modern world and one without, but it doesn’t detract from its low-key charm.

In a capsule: Based on a Chekhov novella, a character study of a small community in a seaside village in late 19th century Russia. Deftly observed, beautifully filmed, it’s a low-key and pleasurable package.

3.5 stars

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