It kind of feels, even now that I've seen it, that The Duel isn't a real movie - oh, beg pardon, of course I meant Anton Chekhov's The Duel, as it appears that the film is "really" titled. It probably says more about me than the filmmakers that I find this fact incredibly annoying, but there's something about the simultaneous desperation and smugness of putting an author's name right there in the title that kind of turns me off, right there. But setting that aside - for it probably is the single great flaw of Anton Chekhov's The Duel, if you're a bizarrely anal-retentive jackass like myself - it still doesn't quite feel like the film exists in any legitimate way. A celebrated Georgian-Israeli filmmaker directing an adaptation of a Russian writer's classic novella, with American dollars backing it, and an all-Brit cast; it doesn't seem to have "premiered" so much as simply wandered into New York's Film Forum one April day, and even now it's not exactly in the midst of a general release, so much as a series of random and disconnected engagements oozing across the country with glacial slowness.
This state of affairs isn't an affront to humanity, mind you; but it is a pity. The Duel is at least good enough that it deserves a fighting chance to be seen by anyone, anywhere in the world, and not just a "blink and you'll miss it" series of assignations with various art house theaters. Though hemmed in a bit by an excessive sense of gravity - the dreaded "We're adapting Chekhov! Be entirely serious, everyone!" syndrome - director Dover Koshashvili (whose 2001 debut, Late Marriage, is loved by positively everyone I know who's seen it, though I have myself not) has a rock-steady hand and a keen sense for how to make things, visually, a great deal more interesting than is quite necessary for the genre. God bless him for it; in a degraded age when even fine filmmakers are content to do a good enough job, stumbling across a fellow who is actually prepared to think, at great length, about what would be a compelling and meaningful way to present material especially prone to "good enough" treatments - the prestige costume drama literary adaptation - that is something refreshing and reaffirming.
Having not read the 1891 novella, I cannot begin to say how much of Mary Bing's screenplay hews closely to that source - but it feels right. The drama hinges on Laevsky (Andrew Scott), a man of uncertain means and employment living in a small town with his mistress, Nadya (Fiona Glascott); in a heavy irony (Russian literature knows no other kind), her husband has finally died, leaving the couple free to marry, just exactly at the same time that he finally figures out that he no longer loves her, if he ever did. So he confesses in what amounts the the movie's opening scene to an old doctor, Samoylenko (Niall Buggy), who functions as a tolerable approximation of the film's overarching moral guide. Overhearing this confession is Von Koren (Tobias Menzies), a zoologist with armed a zesty overreading of Darwin's theory of natural selection as a scientific proof that certain people are just too inferior to live. Ostensibly because he objects to Laevsky's unthinking ruin of an upstanding married woman, Von Koren has made it his mission to take the layabout hedonist to task for his moral crimes, which in due order culminates in (what else) a duel, that noble exemplar of 19th Century masculine honor. What happens as a result - well, I can't spoil a movie nobody will see based on a 120-year-old classic, can I?
It is probably not evident from this précis the degree to which the movie's story is fussy and precise; irritatingly so, one might say, but part of the great charm and great frustration of 19th Century Russian literature is its overwhelming, serious thoughtfulness, literature obsessed with ideas and modes of thought as much as with human characters and melodrama. So the mere fact that in The Duel, every character has the undeniable tang of the symbolic - Laevsky is Bored Self-Involvement, Von Koren is Unyielding Rationalism, Samoylenko is Pragmatism, Nadya is Modern Women Question for Self-Definition, and so forth - should not altogether be held against the film; it's a feature, not a bug, as they say. There's a reason, of course, why this kind of material often makes for rocky moviegoing - Sergei Bondarchuk's massive War and Piece, and Louis Malle's unnervingly casual Vanya on 42nd Street are the only movies based on major 19th Century Russian literary works that I can immediately recall as being great films - which is that this kind of intellectual profundity clicks better in the stentorian context of the printed word, or aided by the electricity and physicality of live theater, than in the more immediate, and simultaneously more transitory, medium of cinema.
Given that limitation - and make no mistake, The Duel does indeed trip up on its own deepness from time to time, and in these moments comes across as arch and talky more than anything - Koshashvili never contents himself with simply letting the screenplay do the work. On the contrary, his direction is quite careful and driving. For one thing, he does not (heaven be praised!) fall into the typical costume drama trap of letting the incredibly detailed dress (designed by Sergio Ballo) and sets (Ivo Husnjak) stomp all over everything else. Instead, he and cinematographer Paul Sarossy marshal the natural tendency of those elements to crowd-out the human element to the film's advantage, framing the sumptuously appointed interiors as cages, flat planes of stuffy misery that dominate and limit the characters (the opposite tends to be true of exteriors: they're expanisve images with focus that extends so deep it's almost 3-D). It takes a special kind of skill - or maybe it's just perversity - to make a film at once so beautiful (several shots are pretty enough to hang on your wall) and still so smothering; the whole film is a bit like having a hand clenched around your throat, gripping, yet so subtle about it that you don't notice till it's over.
Above and beyond such niceties of mise en scène, the film boasts a remarkably deep field of actors that I've pretty much never heard of: there are some notablemissteps (I could have done without Scott's decision to literalise Laevsky's animal urges with honest-to-God snarling), but for the most part, everyone onscreen is bringing a remarkable level of control to characters who have to be at once both individual and icon; a tricky balancing act, but one that generally works. Particularly in the duel scene itself, wherein Scott and Menzies both do things with their body language that should be marked as essential viewing for anyone with even a little bit of interest in the state of silent acting techniques, circa the early 21st century.
A fluid, easy film; no. But an engaging, fascinating, undeniably annoying in patches film? Without a doubt, and though better films have gotten and will get higher-profile releases this year, it's a damn shame that something as altogether stimulating as The Duel will have to settle for being The Best Film You Almost Certainly Won't See of 2010.