Bad day on the Black Sea
This adaptation of the great Anton Chekhov’s novella of conflict at the seashore joins such illustrious films as William Shakespeare’s Romeo +
Juliet, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Danielle Steel’s No Greater Love in the name-within-the-title movie sweepstakes. Maybe the producers of this story were worried about it being mistaken for the 1971 Steven Spielberg highway movie.
But this duel is about as far from the setting of Spielberg’s Duel as you can get. We are in a resort town on the Black Sea, sometime around the turn of the 20th century. The players are an indolent young civil servant, Laevsky (Andrew Scott), who has lost his way, his purpose, and his self-respect and now spends most of his time drinking and playing cards; his mistress, Nadia (Fiona Glascott), who has come away with him despite being married to another man; and Von Koren (Tobias Menzies), a stiff-necked zoologist who disapproves of the way Laevsky treats Nadia and of the way Laevsky does pretty much everything else.
Laevsky and Nadia have been living in sin for a couple of years now, and the bloom is off the rose. He would like to rid himself of her but doesn’t quite know how these things are done. In any case, it might require more energy than he can muster.
“Tell me,” he asks his friend Samoylenko (Niall Buggy), the doctor, “what is the meaning of softening of the brain?”
“How can I explain it to you?” the doctor replies. “It’s a disease in which the brain becomes softer … as it were, dissolves.”
Laevsky has just received news that Nadia’s husband has died of softening of the brain, which is bad news because it removes the protective layer of matrimony from his triangular equation. But in a sense it is Laevsky who is suffering from softening of the brain. When he moved to the resort town, he had a romantic notion that he would give up the intellectual life and become a farmer. He’s managed the first part, but his ambitions, which seemed so idealistic and noble in the bracing chill of St. Petersburg, have softened and dissolved in the hot, muggy south.
Nadia has devolved into a nagging flirt who supplements their lack of income by trading sexual favors for the latest bonnet or parasol. Laevsky doesn’t know about her indiscretions; he just knows he wants out.
Von Koren is a scientist, a disciple of Darwin and Nietzsche, a man with a strong sense of self-discipline and a low threshold of irritation for a man like Laevsky. “He’s as dangerous to society as the cholera microbe,” he grumbles. “When the Laevskys multiply, civilization will degenerate utterly. Mankind will perish.”
Laevsky doesn’t tell Nadia right away about her husband’s death. He knows he should, but the timing never seems quite right. Besides, he is perfectly aware that once she is up to speed on the situation, he will be faced with the pressure of marrying the lady himself. Instead he treats her more and more churlishly and finally thrusts the letter with the news into her hands muttering, “Here, this concerns you,” and goes out for a walk.
Aside from good looks, the Laevsky we see has practically nothing to recommend him. He’s a gambler, a drinker, an idler, he’s not nice to his lady, he insults his friends, and he has a moral flaccidity that sometimes degenerates into hysterics.
By contrast, Von Koren seems to have things together. He’s a committed scientist and a hard worker. But he has a tendency to accentuate the negative. As another character complains, when somebody exclaims over the beauty of a bunch of grapes, Von Koren will remark on how ugly they are after they’ve been chewed and digested.
Laevsky has gotten himself into his romantic situation by subscribing to the new morality, while Von Koren is a devotee of Darwin and the new science. In contrast, Laevsky’s best friend is a man of science, the doctor Samoylenko, while Von Koren’s main confidant is a man of faith, a deacon (Jeremy Swift).
When the pot boils over, Von Koren challenges Laevsky to the confrontation forecast in the title. Dueling in this era is pretty much a thing of the past, but both men feel honor-bound to go through with it. Von Koren assures the doctor that it will come to nothing: Laevsky, he predicts, will fire into the air, and “I probably won’t fire at all.”
But whatever the outcome, a duel is apt to be a life-changing experience, one way or another.
The director is a Soviet-born Israeli, Dover Koshashvili ( Late Marriage, 2001), but the cast is mostly Irish, and the movie is shot in English. The actors are good, and the sense of place is exceptionally strong. Koshashvili and director of photography Paul Sarossy give the immediacy of today to this little resort town in the Caucasus of 100 years ago (with the Croatian seaboard standing in). The setting of the title event is spectacular, and all the photography is wonderful. Koshashvili has a tendency to let things drag a bit too much, especially in the movie’s first half; shots of faces and poses substitute for storytelling, and in places the movie seems as lazy as Laevsky. But Chekhov’s story provides a lot to chew on; and unlike the fate of the bunch of grapes, the beauty is still there at the finish.
High noon in the Caucasus: Fiona Glascott and Andrew Scott
The bloom has worn off: Fiona Glascott