There’s a horrible moment at the start of this adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s pointed novella when all the sun-dappled still lifes (e.g., a lady’s red shoe caught by a ray of morning light) promise a quick descent into Merchant Ivory middlebrow. Then the stubbly and disheveled Ivan Andreitch Laevsky (Scott) kills a fly with a thudding smack, and the overly pretty images are put into their proper context.
Beauty tortures Laevsky, who’s come to the Black Sea with his mistress (Glascott), dreaming of a carefree life that has never materialized. He whiles away the hours on a couch or at the card table, alienating his woman and gaining the disdain of a zoologist (Menzies) whom he will ultimately engage in pistols at 20 paces.
The lead-up to their transformative duel is filled with deceptions and treachery, ripped bodices and caustic barbs. (Personal favorite, taken verbatim from Chekhov’s story: “Get rid of him, Alexandr Daviditch, or else I’m going.... He’ll bite me.”) The performers clearly relish these lines, and Scott, simultaneously feral, manic and despondent, is a particular standout. Yet save for Paul Sarossy’s cinematography, the filmmaking is undistinguished at best and amateurish at worst, with some especially egregious editing mismatches throwing off the actors’ rhythms. One senses this is a production better suited to the stage.—Keith Uhlich