“You sap the foundations of civilisation”
Based on one of Chekhov’s novellas, The Duel is set in a seaside town in the Caucasus which could be somewhere like Sochi (if I’ve got my geography right). But the Winter Olympics are far from the subject here, unless they’re giving out medals for passive-aggressiveness, pretentious moping and hopelessly futile inaction. These of course are the hallmarks of Chekhovian drama and they’re all present and correct in this 2010 film by Dover Kosashvili which boasts an excellent Anglo-Irish cast including Andrew Scott, Tobias Menzies and Michelle Fairley.
The plot focuses on Scott’s Laevsky, a Russian aristocrat whose sense of entitlement has abdicated any form of responsibility from his life. So he’s hugely in debt, he’s careless in his work at the civil service, and he’s engaged in an affair with a married woman, Nadya, whom he has coaxed away from Moscow. But he doesn’t love her and when the news comes that her husband has died, thereby freeing her to marry her lover, Laevsky withholds the information from her. All the while, he stands in pernicious moral judgement of all those around him, truly a product of the decaying society of this Mother Russia.
Kosashvili’s film is intensely beautiful, so many of his shots have a painterly quality about them, the detail in the light simply stunning to look at. Which artfully highlights the emptiness at the heart of the story. Scott delivers a customarily strong performance as the arrogant Laevsky who rails against everything with any real sense of meaning. Fiona Glascott is also good as the vacuous Nadya, a victim of the reprehensible societal mores that prides respectful appearance above all else as exemplified in a blistering scene with Michelle Fairley’s excellent Marya who chastises her for not doing all she can to become a lady of good standing.
The Duel is not likely to win over any new fans to Chekhov – it inhabits the same sphere as many of his theatrical works in charting the decline of a section of society that is unaware that their world is crumbling around them, and similarly lacks a conventional drive to its narrative. Instead, it delves deeply into their interior world, as hollow as it may be, and exposes their characters for all to see. It is really rather well done – Tobias Menzies as Laevsky’s main enemy and Niall Buggy as their doctor friend Samoylenko are also good – and proof that Chekhov can indeed work on screen.