Obviously the title leaves much to be desired, but in every other possible way, Anton Chekhov’s The Duel is everything a costume drama should be—filled with stellar acting by winsome British and Irish stars, beautiful costumes and set dressing, gorgeous cinematography and breathtaking scenery—all blue skies, peach-roofed villas and deep, mesmeric, ink blue sea.
Even better, all of these pleasures complement a gripping story propelled by carefully placed moral weights and counterweights. The whole is brilliantly orchestrated by a director who absolutely understands both Chekhov’s subtle wit and deep humanistic sympathies.
And just who is this director? Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather when I found out it was the same man responsible for the 2001 contemporary Israeli drama Late Marriage, but on consideration it shouldn’t be surprising. Although it was only Kosashvili’s second feature, Late Marriage was remarkable for its deft, uncompromising storytelling, rich depiction of character and relationships, and masterful control of tone—always somewhere between comic and horrifying—qualities it shares with Anton Chekhov’s The Duel, and indeed all of Chekhov.
Furthermore, what seems an unlikely choice of material, given the contemporary Israeli settings of his earlier films, makes a lot of sense when one learns that the Israel-dwelling Kosashvili was actually born in Georgia, on the coast of the Black Sea, exactly the location of this longest of Chekohov’s stories (although the production was actually shot on the Croatian coast).
Tobias Menzies plays Von Koren, a rigidly moral officer; an incendiary Andrew Scott is the disaffected aristocrat Laevsky, and the very lovely Fiona Glascott stars as Nadia, Laevsky’s married mistress. The only one of this main trio whom I had seen before is Menzies, from his turn as Brutus in HBO’s Rome.
The characters are embodied so fully that the dueling dualities Chekhov plays with here, between science and religion, reason and passion, never feel schematic or forced. Rather they are part of a pleasing pattern, creating a background against which the characters stand out all the more brilliantly.
Such is the equanimity shared by Chekhov and Kosashvili that one side of the ongoing debate is never favored above the other. The characters are shown for what they are—deeply flawed, irritating, charming and altogether human.
The sum of these excellent parts is far greater than a listing of them can communicate. Diving into this movie was like a plunge into that ink dark Black Sea—refreshing, restorative and a lot of fun. Most of all, Anton Chekhov’s The Duel signals a very gifted director worth watching. I can’t wait to see what else Kosashvili has in store.