THE STORY OF UNCLE VANYA The Screen: A Graceful 'Uncle Vanya'
By Vincent Canby, The New York Times May 19, 1972
Released in 1970, this film both recalls the past and situates Chekhov as a visionary who was ahead of his time. Konchalovsky was loyal to the script and to the intentions of Chekhov as a playwright whilst approaching the adaptation as a filmmaker.
It is a dazzling and compassionate take on one of the most beloved plays in the Russian repertoire.
“Maybe the people in the future will find out how to be happy” laments Vanya in the closing scene. It’s the sense of tragic melancholy which brings out the true value of this film; Chekhov’s sad characters and his compassionate treatment of them seems like a good match with Konchalovsky’s sparse way of filmmaking. You have to be patient with Russian films and this is no exception, but stick with it and you’ll find a beautifully shot film with sorrow in its heart but a will of stoic strength. --Simon Storey, filmblerg.com
Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," first produced by the Moscow Art Theater in 1898, is seldom done in this country, perhaps because a poor production can make it seem to be the Chekhovian parody that one of New York's drama critics called it in the 1930's.
The landscape is familiar enough: a collapsing country estate inhabited by characters who long to be somewhere else, who bicker at tea, and who talk on through evening and night about art, which they miss, provincialism, which is stifling them, inheritances, which are slipping away, opportunities, which they've already lost, and the weather—it seems always about to rain, or to have just finished.
Anton Chekhov was the most thoughtful of great dramatists. He wrote plays that, if done badly enough, turn into auto-critiques, something that was apparent in both the Russian film version of "The Three Sisters," released here in 1969, and Sidney Lumet's English language adaptation of "The Sea Gull" (1968).
Because there have been so few screen adaptations of Chekhov's plays seen here, it doesn't mean as much as I wish it did to say that the new Russian film version of "Uncle Vanya," which opened yesterday at the Regency Theater, is probably the best filmed Chekhov I've ever seen.
Adapted and directed by Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, this "Uncle Vanya" is an exceedingly graceful, beautifully acted production that manages to respect Chekhov as a man of his own time, as well as what I would assume to be the Soviet view of Chekhov as Russia's saddest, gentlest, funniest and most compassionate revolutionary playwright.
At the beginning of the film, Astrov (Sergei Bondarchuk), the doctor who plants trees in hopes of making future civilizations more humane, sits on the verandah in the September heat and wonders if the coming generations will remember. "They will forget," he says with resignation. "God won't forget," says the old nanny who looks exactly like Nikita Khrushchev and, from time to time, comments on what's going on with appropriate truisms.
Like God, the Soviet director has not forgotten, and only in a couple of instances (in the opening credits, for example) does he bear down rather heavily on Chekhov as the scourger of the old order and the prophet of something new.
For the most part, the film proceeds at Chekhov's own pace as the camera, which has the presence of a household intimate, follows the action in close-up, sometimes overhearing scenes from adjoining rooms, sometimes, as if by chance, becoming so involved in the action that it doesn't remember to give us an establishing shot until a scene is almost completed.
Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky occasionally plays with stage effects (dropping the lights to end a scene with a character in silhouette) and arbitrary film effects (for some reason that I can't fathom the movie alternates between sepia and lovely, autumnal color).
Most of the time, however, everything he does seems to be in the service of the text, and of the actors who perform it.They are all marvelous. Innokenty Smoktunovsky as Uncle Vanya, the estate manager who, at 47, imagines (improperly) that had he not wasted his life in the service of his fraudulent brother-in-law, he would have been a Dostoyevsky or a Schopenhauer; Bondarchuk as Astrov, a man who measures his cynicism more carefully than he admits; Irina Kupchenko as Sonya, a lovely, pathetic girl who is left to turn old on the estate with only hopes of heaven to talk about; and Irina Miroschnichenko as Yelena, the young wife of the estate's owner, the second-rate literary celebrity and the outsider who has systematically wrecked the lives of everyone around him.
With the exception of some very Soviet-sounding, things-to-come sort of music behind the opening credits, the sounds of the movie are pure Chekhov, those of bored conversations, sudden explosions of anger and silences framed by the echoes of distant thunder or trains or the barking of dogs."Uncle Vanya" has been remembered by the filmmakers with deep appreciation and taste.
* * *
One of the many things that seem indispensable to the Russian identity is its writers. As the adage goes Russia is the world’s most reading nation – partly due to their beautiful language and partly because of how long their novels seem to be. With Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Nabokov and of course the father of them all Leo Tolstoy, it’s a culture that seems to cultivate great literature and none more so than in it’s foremost playwright Anton Chekhov.--Simon Storey, filmblerg.com