Perhaps it's the exquisite boredom of lazy afternoons, or maybe it's just the effects of the warm weather, but summer has a way of breeding mischief. Mischief breaks out in Anton Chekhov's The Duel, a languorous costume drama set during a hot summer in the Caucasus. And then mischief leads to mayhem.
The film, which screenwriter Mary Bing based on Chekhov's 1891 novella, is by the Georgian-Israeli director Dover Koshashvili. It is designed and photographed in a pretty style that screams literary adaptation, in case that ungainly title didn't scream it loudly enough. I'm not entirely convinced this material lives up to its treatment, but Anton Chekhov's The Duel is a diverting domestic intermezzo with some moderately interesting philosophizing thrown in.
The shaky antihero is Laevsky (Andrew Scott), a dissolute civil servant who drinks and gambles. He lives on the lovely Black Sea coast with his married mistress Nadia (Fiona Glascott). He doesn't love her, but the sex remains lively. Even so, gorgeous Nadia doesn't confine her attentions to Laevsky. She also grants sexual favors to various townsmen, including a scheming police captain and a milliner not strictly interested in hat making.
The news arrives that Nadia's husband is dead, and then everyone, it seems, wants these kids to give up their bohemian ways and settle down. Laevksy is gently advised to do so by his doctor friend Samoylenko (Niall Buggy), while Nadia receives terser orders from the severe matron Marya (Michelle Fairley), who threatens to drop Nadia socially.
Watching events unfold is the smug zoologist Von Koren (Tobias Menzies), who embraces Darwinian precepts that doubtless were radical in late imperial Russia. He despises Laevsky's indolence. Laevsky hatches a plan to flee Nadia, but he has to borrow money from Samoylenko, who in turn has to borrow it from Von Koren. He won't lend it unless Laevksy promises to marry Nadia.
Laevsky cracks under the mounting pressure, in a remarkable sequence set at a graceful little party. Then Laevsky and Von Koren agree to duel, and that confrontation plays out in a remote cavern.
As you'd guess from the title, the duel is at the dramatic and emotional core of the film. Yet its stakes are ambiguous, and not in a particularly artful way. Is it strictly a matter of honor? Is Von Koren scientifically testing the principle of survival of the fittest? (Or, more precisely, survival of the fittest guy with a pistol.) I'm not sure, and it seems like this ought to be clearer. But at least the duel is suspenseful and dramatic in a way that much of what comes before isn't.
The actors, mostly unfamiliar to me, are pleasing. That's especially true of Scott as Laevsky, half asleep one moment, frantic the next. He poignantly captures the desperation of a man who can't control his impulses and, as a result, finds himself in an impossible situation. The worst humiliations are the ones we create for ourselves.