In one of many scenes in Anton Chekhov’s The Duel in which listless aristocrats kill time, a knot of friends watches a beautiful woman walk by, holding a white parasol transformed by the sun into a halo of pure light. Cinematographer Paul Sarossy keeps capturing plangent visions like that one in the gorgeous old seaside resort where the film is set, but we’re not here to admire the scenery: The ruling-class residents of this town are so unhappy they make even this setting feel suffocating rather than sublime. As Ivan Laevsky (Andrew Scott) snaps at an officious woman when she warbles about the scenery: “To be in constant ecstasy over nature shows poverty of imagination.” Or, at least, an un-Chekhovian absence of tormented introspection.
It’s summertime and the living is uneasy. Laevsky frets and sweats, marinated in books and booze. Tired of everything, he blames his mistress, Nadia (Fiona Glascott), for his ennui. Nadia, a round-edged, red-haired beauty who looks like a more delicate version of Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, is unhappy too: If she no longer has her lover’s adoration, what does she have? What’s worse, the flirtations she’s engaged in to keep herself entertained—and in the new clothes Laevsky can’t afford—are threatening to get her into real trouble. Meanwhile, Fyodor Von Koren (Tobias Menzies), a harshly judgmental über-mensch who wants to rid the world of the idle rich, is training his slightly crossed eyes on Laevsky.
Always talking about going somewhere else, The Duel’s understimulated overlords act like frustrated adolescents. Shouting, pouting, throwing fits, and anatomizing each other’s and other people’s faults in dialogue that sprouts spikes as quickly as Dren’s tail in Splice, Laevsky and Von Koren feed their own unstable emotions until they push themselves and each other to a crisis point. All that angst is engrossing, thanks to the script’s fidelity to the Chekhov novella it was based on and the actors’ skill in making their characters perfectly life-sized—no more and no less.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.