I never read Anton Chekov’s novella that this film is based on, so I have no point of comparison there, and these days that isn’t really fair anyway. We’ve all determined that the source material is always better than the film that’s made from it. People started learning that about the time Stephen King’s stories were adapted for the multiplex. What I can say about this movie is that it is equal parts fascinating and frustrating, but manages to hold one’s attention throughout nonetheless. User mileage may vary, however.
For those who don’t know the story, let me sum it up as neatly as possible. Laevsky (played by Andrew Scott, who makes this character thoroughly unlikable) is a man who has lost his way… if he ever had it. He’s shacked up with a married woman named Nadya (Fiona Glascott), whom he has convinced to leave her husband. Now that she has, he wants to leave her, but he has no money and even less ambition, though he talks a big game. His former friend, Von Koren (Tobias Menzies), has grown tired of Laevsky’s immature ways, and when the opportunity arises (in a very anti-climatic, yet realistic way), he challenges the man to a duel. This duel is not the driving force of the story, but everything leading up to it and following it is, and that’s where this film gets its backbone.
The plot is mediocre at best, and the characters are universally unlikable. I wouldn’t want to spend more than ten minutes with any of them. Put these two things together, however, and it all starts to make sense. The fate of these people rests not upon something out of their control, but something totally within their grasp, and their inability to ascertain that is what drives them to the place they happen to be in. There is a reason Chekov is considered a master storyteller, and this is it. Unfortunately, the filmmakers had trouble tapping into some of that magic and have made something that feels like it should be far better than what it is. There is too much wasted time here, and while some may enjoy that, I found that it made the film feel a bit tedious. It could’ve been far worse, but at the same time there was plenty of room for improvement, too.
All of that said, I now want to read the original story. The filmmakers have caught my attention just enough to make me want to delve deeper. It is obvious there is a great story here. Glimpses of it exist throughout the movie. Are the faults of the film also found in the story? I doubt it, but there’s only one way to find out.