Anton Chekhov’s peculiar espirit can pose a formidable challenge to cinematic adapters. His unique dramatic brilliance floats us between pathos and irony as we view hopelessly trapped characters; their self-imposed despondency typically builds to a nervous froth before an anticlimactic moment of startling nakedness, where all human action is revealed as a mechanism of cowardice. On the stage, through the heat of real bodies from moment to moment, these depressive uncloakings can be searing and incisive; Louis Malle almost certainly recognized this advantage in cataloguing André Gregory’s informal production of Uncle Vanya. But in film, they often feel sterile.
Dover Koshashvili, the sensitive director of Anton Chekhov’s The Duel, doesn’t entirely evade the pitfalls of bringing this particular Russian to the screen: He photographs the bucolic, Black Sea coastal setting of the fevered tale with such painterly light that the squalor seems heavenly, and his British cast takes an irascible, sincerely deadpan approach to what could be taken for pathetic humor just as easily as sympathetic anguish. But the screenplay, penned by Mary Bing, tastefully pares down Chekhov’s verbose bleak-speak into concise morsels of socio-spiritual anemia, while the acting—especially with the feckless and penurious aristocrat protagonist Laevsky (Andrew Scott)—believably renders the characters’ indulgent plight of selfish listlessness. And though the source novella isn’t in the author’s seminal pantheon, Koshashvili and Bing whittle away at the narrative’s endless deliberation to achieve undeniably, if fleetingly, Chekhovian moments.
In the story, Laevsky is a broke, nonworking and heavily drinking socialite unhappily living in a small town with a restless married woman, Nadya (Fiona Glascott). They lash out at one another with thoughtless brutalities and sexual improprieties until a cocky, local zoologist, Von Koren (Tobias Menzies) confronts Laevsky’s sexist indolence with the titular challenge. The film somewhat botches Von Koren’s supercilious industriousness: Koshashvili over-sexualizes the main characters, adding an animalistic eroticism to Laevsky and Nadya’s pairing that accentuates Von Koren’s puffy, scholarly impotence and justifies his hatred for Laevsky with a putatively chivalrous attraction to Nadya’s hedonism. As a result, the film’s third act seems perfunctorily violent rather than being, as it was in the book, an inevitable metaphor for man’s gripping and manipulating the laws of nature with his own hands through the embrace of evolution. When Von Koren speaks of Darwin in the movie, it appears more for the sake of establishing the period’s biases than for foreshadowing the senseless, fire-armed showdown to come.
While Koshashvili mangles some of the symbolism, however, he indelibly evokes Chekhov’s cadence and attention to detail. We nearly hear the familiar dry, omniscient narration in the opening series of shots, lingering on Laevsky’s haphazardly strewn belongings, and in the medium-wide, eye-level framing that allows us to soak in the characters’ inescapable space along with their ruminations of self-pity. And though the set and costume design’s heavy-handed opulence is often directly at odds with the plentiful articulations of unease and ennui, the democratic camera angles and steadily tension-building edits locate the sharp terror in Chekhov’s interactions; the clumsiness of the duel itself, shot within a lush, mountainous indentation, is depicted with near-perfection. If only the dismal poverty and bull-headed existential crises were more memorable than the ornate period dress and magic-hour cinematography. With all the oceanic swimming, pastoral picnicking, and rough sex, the characters often seem to be complaining while on vacation.