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Movie Review

Anton Chekhov's The Duel

More costumes than confrontation in ‘Duel’

Fiona Glascott and Andrew Scott star in “Anton Chekhov’s The Duel.’’ Fiona Glascott and Andrew Scott star in “Anton Chekhov’s The Duel.’’ (Paul Sarossy/High Line Pictures)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / October 15, 2010

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A certain suspension of disbelief is required to tolerate Russian names tumbling out of British mouths. Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer playing Mrs. and Mr. Leo Tolstoy, in “The Last Station,’’ from 2009, made you feel that the two nations had been sufficiently collapsed into one: Oscaristan. The landscape in “Anton Chekhov’s The Duel’’ is more barren. English people also staff this movie, which has been highly distilled from Chekhov’s 1891 novella, and it’s convincing up to a point. That point being the moment more is called for than the poses of costume drama.

The Chekhov story told the tale of a man so bored with his selfishness and decadence that he starts to crack up. The movie extracts a moral drama from the enveloping ennui. Laevsky (Andrew Scott) has fled Russia with his married mistress, Nadya (Fiona Glascott), to a Caucasus villa on the Black Sea. After two years, he’s no longer in love. And she doesn’t appear to be far behind. Her hats, for instance, might be purchased from the sleazy milliner with a currency other than cash. All that had been standing between her affair and a proper marriage was Nadya’s husband. When word arrives of his death, Laevsky keeps the news to himself.

Laevsky’s languishing, joblessness, and indifference to Nadya provokes the judgment of Von Koren (Tobias Menzies), a zoologist and the town’s behavioral bully, who upgrades Laevsky’s eventual challenge of a fight with Van Koren to a more serious duel. The movie teems with coquettes and roués, but it lacks urgency. Laevsky’s lassitude all too easily takes over. The Georgian-Israeli director Dover Kosashvili captures Chekhov’s mix of wistfulness and anger, and his interest in propriety and its discontents. But this movie needs the fresh insight of Kosashvili’s first, the 2001 Israeli relationship comedy “Late Marriage.’’

“The Duel,’’ which Mary Bing adapted, has the youthful qualities of innocence but too few of the ideas about how best to dismantle, reassemble, and customize Chekhov so that we believe it. Oddly, the movie’s heft comes from quiet moments in which the camera lingers on inanimate objects — a lone red ballet shoe in the middle of the floor, an unfinished half of cantaloupe whose center entertains a spoon — until they achieve the suggestive power of a painted still life.

Otherwise, what we have here is a kind of class project financed by the largesse of the wealthier participants. When a respectable townswoman (Michelle Fairley) essentially calls Nadya an embarrassment to classy dames, you don’t feel any sense of devastation or mutual embarrassment. You want bite. But the movie’s teeth are locked behind the dramatic equivalent of a retainer.

Glascott, however, is one of the movie’s best decisions. She makes Nadya more fully sexual and less passively tragic than on the page. This now is a character who’s thinking on her feet, performing hurt as opposed to truly feeling it. In doing so, she implies a kind of Darwinian survival mechanism. When the rest of the movie does the same, it just feels like playacting.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

ANTON CHEKHOV’S THE DUEL

Directed by: Dover Kosashvili

Written by: Mary Bing, adapted from the novella by Anton Chekhov

Starring: Andrew Scott, Fiona Glascott, Michelle Fairley, and Tobias Menzies

At: The Brattle Theatre

Running time: 91 minutes

Unrated (nudity, violence, implied sexual favors)

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