A learned man with a small mind munches a banana while explaining the theory of evolution, totally unaware of the irony. It is one of the finer examples of how screenwriter Mary Bing has distilled the essence of Anton Chekhov in her engrossing adaptation of his novella, THE DUEL. The arch ironies, the piquant comedy, and the profound tragedy are all present with the same delicate touch that sharply draws the characters with all their contradictions and self-delusion with an unblinking honesty. There is also the same compassion for their faults that, in the main, hurt no one but themselves.
The setting is in the Caucasus in a sleepy resort town, to which Vanya (Andrew Scott) fled with his married lover, Nadja (Fiona ) several years back. Instead of the romantic adventure in a cottage tending a vinyard, their life has become the dull routine of Vanya’s government job and Nadja’s endless flirtations with other men and an impecunious attitude towards everything else. Nadja, alabaster of skin, incarnadine of lip, is still a beauty, but the tedium of small-town life and the claustrophobia of the small social circle in which they move has caused Vanya’s ardor to have cooled. When he learns that Nadja’s husband has died, he becomes even more discontent, keeping the news from Nadja, grousing about the lack of cabbage for soup, and planning a getaway to Moscow without Nadja.
Over the course of the next few days, the tensions between Vanya and his zoologist neighbor Von Koren (Tobias Menzies) will boil over, Nadja’s best friend, Marya (Michelle Fairley), the only woman in the village who will receive her, will suffer a bout of conventionality, and her flirtations with a sales clerk and a police officer will take an unexpected turn, Vanya’s best friend, the mild-mannered Dr Samoylenko (Niall Buggy), will take umbrage, and his drinking companion, the affable but dissipated Sheshkovsky (Nicholas Rowe), will find himself awkwardly attempting to broker the eponymous duel without adequate preparation.
Director Dover Koshashvili sets the pace of the action to the slow rhythms of country life, the unhurried beauty of oceans and mountains in contrast to the unhappiness of the people who dwell there. All the better for the character study at hand. Scott goes from the unlikable hang-dog misery of a man who got everything he though he wanted to the desperation of a man wanting to escape it, and finally to hysterics, breaking down very publicly at a party with uncontrolled laughter that devolves into barking like a dog in a horrifying moment that manages to be both funny and poignant. Menzies is coolly precise as Von Koren needles Vanya unmercifully, agitating him over the course of the story until Vanya’s unfortunate turn of phrase allows Von Koren to accept the challenge to the duel that Vanya didn’t quite offer, but can’t refuse.
An expression flitting over a face, the sudden violence of a comment, the realization of the hollow vanity of a hat, it’s the small moments that crystallize the inner life of these people, even the ones on the periphery, such as Olga (Debbie Chazen), the voluminous housemaid with a penchant for creating, but not serving, complicated pastries.
THE DUEL is blessed with a superb cast in perfect synch with Chekhov’s sensibilities, rendering this a lush, literate film in which human frailty is no sin, but also no excuse. Where windows make good doors, and the intricacies of human relationships are as heart-stopping as a high-speed car chase.