Director, cast are superb in Chekhov drama
Category: The Cherry Orchard Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: April 12, 2002 | Publication: SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER | Author: WILLIAM ARNOLD
Few international filmmakers have burst on the American film scene more explosively -- or fell from it faster -- than Greek Cypriot director Michael Cacoyannis, who received an Oscar nomination for directing the 1964 triumph, "Zorba the Greek," then disappeared from the scope.
But now, nearly four decades later, here he is again, reunited with his old "Zorba" star, Alan Bates, in an unlikely but extraordinarily effective English-language adaptation of Anton Chekhov's classic 1904 play, "The Cherry Orchard."
Technically a Cypriot/French co-production, and released in Europe in 1999 under the title "Varya," the film is a very straightforward staging of the drama, which tells the story of the downfall of an aristocratic feudal family that can't adapt to the post-emancipation Russia.
Its flawed heroine is Madame Ranyevskaya (Charlotte Rampling), a middle-age woman of a somewhat shallow and frivolous nature who has returned to her heavily mortgaged estate after living in France for the previous five years and squandering most of her money.
Through her we're introduced to a wide ensemble of characters, including her equally incompetent brother, Gayev (Bates); her hopeful 17-year-old daughter Anya (Tushka Bergen); and her older and more melancholy adopted daughter Varya (Katrin Cartlidge), who manages the estate.
There's also Lopahin (Owen Teale), a wealthy merchant from the old peasant class who loves Varya; Trofimov (Andrew Howard), an idealistic student who loves Anya and represents the new revolutionary movement; and maybe a half-dozen other characters, mostly servants.
The family cherishes the estate, and especially its famously beautiful cherry orchard, but they can't begin to pay the debts that have accrued on it, nor are they willing to sell off parcels, so -- barring a last-minute marriage to money -- they're doomed to lose it.
In Chekhov's hands, this inexorable tragedy comes together to be an evenhanded, bittersweet, immensely satisfying domestic drama that is arguably literature's most moving portrayal of the passing of the old pre-World War I European social order.
And the power of the play has been greatly enhanced here by the magic of movies, which allows us to feel every creak and moan of the old house, see all the complex details of its extinct lifestyle and experience the glory of its precious cherry orchard and the horror of its destruction.
There's no weak link in the cast. Rampling is the embodiment of faded 19th-century elegance, Bates gives Gayev just the right blend of incompetence and dignity, Cartlidge and Bergen strike a perfect contrast as the sisters and Teale steals the movie with his tortured Lopahin.
But the real credit for the film's success goes to Cacoyannis, who clearly has a gift for getting the lead out of great stage works. (His 1961 "Electra" is said to be the finest movie adaptation of a Greek tragedy, and his 1977 "Iphigania" also has a big following.)
This production seems to have avoided all the mistakes made by the last major movie adaptation of Chekhov: Sidney Lumet's 1968 version of "The Sea Gull." It's naturalistic, briskly paced and never overreverential. It's not a bit stagy, yet it manages to be dazzling theater.