|Tobias Menzies||Von Koren|
|Jeremy Swift||The Priest|
|Directed by||Dover Kosashvili|
With this adaptation of his novella of conflict at the seashore, the great Anton Chekhov joins such illustrious company as William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Daniele Steel's No Greater Love in the name-within-the-title movie sweepstakes. Maybe the producers of this story were worried about being mistaken for the 1971 Steven Spielberg highway movie.
But this duel is as far from I-40 as you can get. We are in a resort town on the Black Sea, sometime around the turn of the 20th century. The players are an indolent young civil servant, Laevsky (Andrew Scott), who has lost his way, his purpose, and his self-respect, and now spends most of his time drinking and playing cards; his mistress, Nadya (Fiona Glascott), who has come away with him despite her being married to another man; and Von Koren (Tobias Menzies), a stiff-necked zoologist who disapproves of the way Laevsky treats Nadya, and of the way Laevsky does pretty much everything else.
Laevsky and Nadya have been living in sin for a couple of years now, and the bloom is off the rose. He would like to rid himself of her, but doesn't quite know how these things are done. In any case, it might require more energy than he can muster.
"Tell me," he asks his friend Samolyenko (Niall Buggy), the doctor, "what is the meaning of softening of the brain?"
"How can I explain it to you," the doctor replies. "It's a disease in which the brain becomes softer…as it were, dissolves."
Laevsky has just received news that Nadya's husband has died, of softening of the brain, which is bad news because it removes the protective layer of matrimony from his triangular equation. But in a sense it is Laevsky who is suffering from softening of the brain. When he came to this place, he had a romantic notion that he'd give up the intellectual life and become a farmer. He's managed the first part, but his ambitions, which seemed so idealistic and noble in the bracing chill of St. Petersburg, have softened and dissolved in the hot, muggy south.
Nadya has devolved into a nagging flirt, who supplements their lack of income by trading sexual favors for the latest bonnet or parasol. Laevsky doesn't know about her indiscretions; he just knows he wants out.
Von Koren is a scientist, a disciple of Darwin and Nietzsche, a man with a strong sense of self-discipline and a low threshold of irritation for a man like Laevzky. "He's as dangerous to society as the cholera microbe," he grumbles. "When the Laevskys multiply, civilization will degenerate utterly. Mankind will perish."
Laevsky doesn't tell Nadya right away about her husband's death. He knows he should, but the timing never seems quite right, and besides, be is perfectly aware that once she is up to speed on the situation, he will be faced with the pressure of marrying the lady himself. Instead he treats her more and more churlishly, and finally thrusts the letter with the news into her hands muttering "Here, this concerns you," and goes out for a walk.
Aside from good looks, the Laevsky we see has practically nothing to recommend him. He's a gambler, a drinker, he's an idler, he's not nice to his lady, he insults his friends, and he has a moral flaccidity that sometimes degenerates into hysterics.
By contrast, Von Koren seems to have things together. He's a committed scientist and a hard worker. But he has a tendency to accentuate the negative. As another character complains, when somebody exclaims over the beauty of a bunch of grapes, Von Koren will remark on how ugly they are after they've been chewed and digested.
Laevsky has gotten himself into his romantic situation by subscribing to the new morality, Von Koren is a devotee of Darwin and the new science. In contrast Laevsky's best friend is a man of science, the doctor Samolyenko, while Von Koren's main confidant is a man of faith, the priest (Jeremy Swift).
When the pot boils over, Von Koren challenges Laevsky to the confrontation forecast in the title. Dueling in this era is pretty much a thing of the past, but both men feel honor bound to go through with it. Von Koren assures the doctor that it will come to nothing – Laevsky, he predicts, will fire into the air, and "I probably won't fire at all."
But whatever the outcome, a duel is apt to be a life-changing experience, one way or another.
The director is a Soviet-born Israeli, Dover Kosashvili (Late Marriage, 2001), but the cast is mostly Irish, and the movie is shot in English. The actors are good, and the sense of place is exceptionally strong – Kosashvili and Director of Photography Paul Sarossy give the immediacy of today to this little resort town in the Caucasus a hundred years ago (with the Croatian seaboard standing in.) The setting of the title event is spectacular, and all the photography is wonderful. Kosashvili has a tendency to let things drag a bit too much, especially in the movie's first half; shots of faces and poses substitute for storytelling, and in places the movie seems as lazy as Laevsky. But Chekhov's story provides a lot to chew on; and unlike the fate of the bunch of grapes, the beauty is still there at the finish.
© Text 2010 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be