"The Judge Gordon Sullivan Sonata" was written for harmonica.
Based on the classic novella by Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy is, without a doubt, one of the great writers in the Western canon, secured by novels like War and Peace and Anna Karenina. However, though he inherited wealth and was definitely in the upper-class equivalent of Russian society, Tolstoy became a radical Christian anarchist. This led him to reject his wealthy upbringing, causing friction with his wife. It should come as no surprise, then, that his 1889 novella The Kreutzer Sonata is the story of a jealous husband killing his wife because of their corrupting lust. What is surprising is that the novella has now been filmed in a contemporary adaptation with Danny Huston starring. Though the filmmakers earn points for intelligent choices in updating the story, the overall effect is less than thrilling.
The film opens on the rich, middle-aged Edgar (Danny Huston, 30 Days of Night) as he calls 911 before laying down in bed. The rest of the film tells the story of he and his wife Abigail (Elizabeth RÖhm, Angel) in flashback. She's a brilliant concert pianist, who is in a relationship when they meet. Edgar woos her, and they marry. However, for a charity event they're hosting, Abigail must practice the title sonata with a handsome violinist. This provokes a jealous rage in Edgar.
I have to give credit where it is due, because The Kreutzer Sonata makes some smart moves. The first is to not make this a stuffy period piece. Most people hear Tolstoy and immediately think sumptuous clothing and actors running around manor houses with accents. Not so with The Kreutzer Sonata. It takes place today, and that gives the story and energy that few period pieces can muster. The second major triumph is getting Danny Huston in a central role. Though he can ham it up occasionally (as he does here), for the most part, his Edgar is intense and believable. He's also tied to the third good idea the filmmakers had: use voiceover. Often times, voiceover is used to paper over cracks in poor storytelling, but The Kreutzer Sonata uses it much like a novel, to give us interior access to Edgar's mental state. Danny Huston reads these lines with relish, which is fun.
This DVD also works in the film's favor. The Kreutzer Sonata was shot on handheld video. That gives it an urgent feel, and the 1.78:1 transfer reflects that. Detail and color saturation are limited by the source material, but for the most part these are solid. Black levels can fluctuate a bit, but they're fine for the shot-on-video look. Though it won't push a system to the limits, the transfer is faithful to the material. The stereo audio does a fine job presenting both Huston's voiceover and the excellent classical music at the story's center.
Despite these strong pluses in the positive column, The Kreutzer Sonata has a single glaring problem that totally sinks it for me: I could not care less about Edgar. First, there's the fact that he isn't really a character. He's a set of jealousies and habits. We learn very little about him other than the fact that he hates classical music and likes rough sex (of which there is a lot in the film, for those keeping track at home). Other than that, he's just another middle-aged man with money who gets jealous. Maybe saying something about the bourgeois predilection for jealousy and the negative effects of it was revolutionary in 1889. In 2008, it's tired and it's boring. Of course, rich white guys like rough sex and get jealous (like a lot of non-rich, non-white, non-guys out there as well). To build a whole narrative around that jealousy (when, from the very first scene, we have a strong idea of where it's going to end, and an even stronger one if we're familiar with the novella) is almost silly. Perhaps, if the writer/director had chosen to switch the genders around there might have been at least a spark in the story (since we don't often take female jealous seriously in the movies). Instead, we watch a bunch of disjointed scenes featuring a character it's difficult to care about getting jealous without a shred of evidence.
The lack of extras doesn't make it easier to love this flick. A commentary track explaining some of the choices behind the project might have shed a little sympathy on Edgar. Considering the caliber of actor involved, getting a few of them to sit down and talk about the movie would have been nice.
If you really want to watch Danny Huston have rough sex with Elizabeth RÖhm, then this is the film for you. Otherwise, there's very little to recommend this ho-hum tale of run-of-the-mill jealousy.
Guilty of self-indulgence.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
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