Judge Roman Martel's duel with his cat was turned into a novella by H.P. Lovecraft.
It's not wise to annoy a zoologist.
Laevsky (Andrew Scott) is in a bit of a jam. He's fallen out of love with his mistress Nadia (Fiona Glascott). He's also broke, so he can't afford to leave the seaside resort they are currently living at. Once he learns that Nadia's husband has died, he fears telling her. What if she wants to get married?
Laevsky isn't the only one unhappy with their lot in life. Nadia finds living in the small resort dreadfully dull, and decides to liven it up with some excessive flirting. This all starts to go awry as some of the men in the village decide to go a little further than just banter and innuendo. Nadia doesn't seem indifferent to the idea either.
Watching the whole thing with disgust is Van Koren (Tobias Menzies), a zoologist who thinks Laevsky is a weak idiot. As the lives of the people in the village begin to be affected by Laevsky's anguish and Nadia's flirting, everything builds to climax. Van Koren decides to test Darwin's theory of evolution by challenging Laevsky to a duel. Only the strongest will survive.
The back of the keepcase of Anton Chekhov's The Duel says this is a comedy. I did chuckle a few times, but more often I was wondering which of these characters was going to become likable. It's a good thing I didn't hold my breath. Laevsky is a cad who is too afraid of telling his lover that he is sick of her. And while he is tired of holding conversations with her, it doesn't stop him from ravishing Nadia when her alluring charms get to him. He even ends up going into a hysterical fit because his anguish and cowardliness overwhelm him. Nice guy to have at parties.
Nadia is charming, beautiful and frail. There are moments when you can see that she still has feelings for Laevsky, but his chilly reception makes her lonely. She's a hurt woman, and one who makes some poor decisions. Understandable, but not likable.
Van Koren is a stuck up jerk. While I tend to agree with his view of Laevsky, he looks at things with too clinical of an eye. Human emotions and frailties are something he doesn't have time for. Instead he sees Laevsky as a weak element to society that needs to be removed.
Those three leads carry the film and while I found their interaction interesting and engaging, I was still never invested in the story. I can't fault the acting. Everyone from the leads to the supporting cast does a great job of adding depth to the characters.
I also have to give kudos to director Dover Kosashvili whose excellent framing and shooting brought out added dimensions to the story. The costumes are excellent, the location shooting in Croatia is gorgeous. The whole production reminded me of something from the production team of Merchant Ivory back in the '90s.
Unfortunately I can't compare this to the novella, as I've never read it. My experience with Chekhov's works is limited to a a reading of his play "The Boor" over a decade ago, and I remember feeling the same type of ambivalence to that. I get the feeling that this may play better to viewers who have read the novella and appreciate the writer's themes and style. But for a viewer like me, who comes in cold, you might find yourself leaving a bit cold as well.
Music Box Films provides a bare bones release. The film does look very good, with the location shootings and detailed costumes being shown off well. The sound mix is a bit soft and there were times where the excellent score by Angelo Milli overpowers the dialogue. I was going to turn on the subtitles, but sadly there weren't any. Also disappointing is the lack of any extras at all. Even a brief bit of text about the novella or Chekhov himself would be welcome.
I'm still pondering how this can be viewed as a comedy. It has some dry humor, but I found it more of a costume drama. So I say, ignore the quotes about the humor on the keepcase and go in expecting a well made period piece. I think you'll find plenty to float your boat.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Music Box Films
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