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With: Andrew Scott, Tobias Menzies, Fiona Glascott, Niall Buggy, Michelle Fairley, Jeremy Swift, Nicholas Rowe, Debbie Chazen, Graham Turner, Alister Cameron, Rik Makarem, Tea Matanovic
Written by: Mary Bing, based on a novella by Anton Chekhov
Directed by: Dover Kosashvili
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 95
Date: 03/18/2013
IMDB

The Duel (2010)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Chekhov, Please

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) is one of my favorite writers; he gets lots of attention in the theatrical world for his celebrated plays, but his literary standing is perhaps not so high, since he concentrated mostly on short stories and a few novellas (part of literary, and cinematic, excellence has always been predicated on how long your book or movie is). Few of his stories have been adapted to film; one of the best, The Lady and the Dog, came all the way back in 1960. Now, here is The Duel, based on one of the master's novellas, published in 1891. It was not pieced together by anyone very famous, but it was made by people who truly care about Chekhov, and not just by translating his works to the screen effectively. They're here to mix it up a bit, and have a little fun.

Laevsky (Andrew Scott) is living with a woman he no longer loves, Nadya (Fiona Glascott), and who is still married to another man. Laevsky receives a letter informing him that the husband is dead, which puts him in a position to marry his mistress -- a position he does not want to be in. He frantically seeks advice, and/or money, to help him solve his problem. His personal favorite solution is to leave. He prevails mainly upon the one person who likes him, the doctor (Niall Buggy).

This Laevsky is not exactly a nice guy. He's bitter, a mean drinker, and not much into cleanliness. A visiting zoologist, Von Koren (Tobias Menzies), takes an intense dislike to Laevsky, which leads to the title duel. Meanwhile, a starched, moustached police officer takes an interest in the lonely Nadya, and uses her unsure standing in the community as a kind of blackmail against her.

The Israeli director Dover Koshashvili (Late Marriage) sets the action in a seaside town (shot in Croatia), which is a long way from the chilly magnificence of Moscow. These Russians (played mostly by English and Irish actors) look decidedly out of place in the heat and in their shirtsleeves. But Koshashvili -- along with screenwriter Mary Bing -- uses this setting to maximum effect, including an awkward picnic in the hills, and conversations in and around the water's edge. The movie manages a kind of desperate drama so high pitched, that it eventually tilts over into comedy.

In one scene, a proper lady gives poor Nadya an earful about the error of her ways; the scene is cruel, but the tone does not lend much weight to the cruelty. Rather, it's almost deflected into a prism of other emotions and ideas: hope, humor, etc. Likewise, the Laevsky character is fairly despicable, and poor Scott can do little to make him "likeable," but he's fascinating nonetheless. He's weak, but his weakness is human. (Incidentally, director Koshashvili pulled off this same kind of balancing act in his superb Late Marriage.)

Best of all, The Duel doesn't smell of dusty shelves and proper literary pedigree; it's not concerned with "staying true to the material" or alienating Chekhov fans. It's a movie, and it's a movie about vivid characters how they find themselves in absurd, heartbreaking situations.

Music Box Films released the movie in 2011 on DVD and Blu-Ray. I only received a review copy of the DVD; it features no extras and only trailers at startup. Regardless, if you're a fan of costume movies and/or literary adaptations, you could do much worse than this.

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