In this nimble version of Anton Chekhov’s eponymous short story, aristocrat Ivan Laevsky (Andrew Scott), and his married mistress Nadya (Fiona Glascott) have decamped from Moscow to the Black Sea. They mean to live off the land, free of the trappings of society. But Laevsky squanders his time on party games, cards and drink, profoundly bored by everything, especially Nadya. She meanwhile flirts her way into more and more debt, eager to keep pace with her confidante, a townslady, Marya (Michelle Farley), her only respectable friend. Watching Laevsky with increasing disgust is Von Koren (Tobias Menzies), a zoologist keen to rid the world of such useless wastrels – “when the Laevskys multiply, civilization will perish and mankind will degenerate utterly.”
Unexpectedly, Nadya’s husband dies and Laevsky knows he can avoid marriage only by leaving the island. He cajoles his good friend Samoylenko (Niall Buggy) into lending just enough cash for Laevsky’s own passage. When Van Koren criticizes him publicly for his intention to ditch Nadya, Laevsky challenges him to a duel. Both men survive, after a fashion, but everything has changed.
Dover Kosashvilli’s Duel is quietly devastating. Screenwriter (and co-producer) Mary Bing’s script avoids the preciousness and romantic carnality of most contemporary literary adaptations, preserving a great deal of Chekhov’s mordant tone and gimlet sympathy. Editor Kate Smith makes great use of off-screen sound, capturing Chekhov’s subtleties by pairing, for example, Laevsky’s disparaging descriptions of Nadya with images of her preening, effectively telling us about each of them simultaneously. The stunning Croatian landscape is put to perfect use, the piano-heavy score a wry comment on the varieties of self-absorption on display.
The dynamic cast are at home in the clothes and formalities of the period, yet resolutely modern. Everyone shines, even in the smallest parts, ably supporting the three leads who are exceptional. Scott and Glascott pull off the difficult feat of seeming to have been in love, their scenes together tainted with the passion-turned-tedium of their romantic seclusion. Menzies shows Von Koren as both understandable and repellent. Despite his unattractively drastic solutions, Von Koren’s disgust with Laevsky’s indolence is hard not to share.
As in his remarkable first feature, Late Marriage, Kosashvilli never overplays his hand. He knows very well that the most lethal moments in a relationship are often small – a gesture, an inflection, the wrong word – so he lets his actors keep things slight but stinging. The Laevsky-Von Koren duel results in no more than a flesh wound; it’s Kosashvilli who elegantly goes in for the kill.
Anton Chekhov’s The Duel makes its U.S. theatrical premiere at Film Forum in New York City starting April 28, with national dates to follow.