The Duel takes place in the intimate confines of a seaside town. The main character, Laevsky (Andrew Scott), has ended up there after running away with his married mistress, Nadya (Fiona Glascott). The town does not prove entirely welcoming, though. The majority of the residents shun their improper courtship and his improper behavior, the latest example of which is his sudden distaste for Nadya and desire to leave her and the town behind. The few who do start up friendships with them all seem to have ulterior motives, whether they be to set the couple on the path to respectability, or to seduce Nadya.
This is admittedly a setup rife with dramatic potential, and Chekhov mines it wonderfully in the novella on which this film is based. The movie, though, wastes such possibilities. It’s so preoccupied with defining all the characters in opposition to each other that any dramatic tension between them comes off as forced and over-calculated rather than as a natural consequence of the social situation in which they find themselves.
The main conflict in the film is meant to be between Laevsky and Von Koren (Tobias Menzies). The differences between the two are mapped out early in the film: the educated Von Koren espouses the teachings of Darwin and Kant, and is greatly preoccupied with the responsibilities that come with his social stature. As such, he cannot contain his irritation toward Laevsky, who eschews work in favor of drinking, gambling, and a generally lazy existence.
The two are supposed to be bitter rivals, but it’s unclear why this is the case. Their interactions are limited and so Von Koren’s hatred seems petty. Laevsky, meanwhile, has so many other problems – a crumbling marriage, imminent bankruptcy – that a feud with Von Koren seems like the least of his worries. The film makes little attempt to provide a context for their hostility. It’s happy to show tense encounters between the two and hope that the audience gets caught up in it, but The Duel is no Hollywood thriller, and so the drama in the film never takes off.
Few characters in the film garner our sympathy, although again the potential of placing such a discordant group in close confines is never fulfilled. Von Koren is pompous and cold. The town doctor, Samoylenko, who seems to genuinely like Laevsky, is good-hearted but too easily manipulated. Marya represents the typical cold-hearted aristocrat: all too ready to be a friend to Nadya until she realizes that Nadya has no interest in behaving like a proper lady. Laevsky’s frantic behavior inspires slight empathy as the film goes on, though for the most part the melodramatic flair with which Scott’s performance is infused only induces eye-rolls. It’s ultimately only Nadya whom we feel sorry for, a modern woman stuck in a culture that won’t allow her freedom and amidst men who vie for her affections without any seeming appreciation for her feelings on the matter.
In fact it is Nadya who provides the best moment of the film. After receiving news of her husband’s death, a distraught Nadya is visited by Marya, who encourages her to see the bright side of things: now she can finally marry Laevsky and settle down. Nadya does not see much use in the advice. “I have not lived yet and you ask me to settle down,” she retorts. Marya is taken aback by Nadya’s impropriety. She accuses her of seducing Laevsky and of being a sinner. It’s the most explicit occurrence of what is the most interesting aspect of the film: the tension between the entrenched, traditional older generation and their more liberal, younger counterparts.
Ultimately, though, this is just another example of wasted potential in The Duel. It’s possible that all the promise comes from Chekhov’s novella and is lost in the adaptation to film. But movies are no less capable than literature at navigating the tensions of a crumbling marriage, the social divisions in a small town, or the conflicts between generations. The Duel, though, gets overwhelmed by all these possible layers, and as such is itself underwhelming.
As an added disappointment, the DVD comes with no special features.