If you’re even the least bit interested in this film, it helps if you love live performance, Anton Chekov plays, and/or Louis Malle. This final film of Malle’s captures André Gregory’s (My Dinner with André) run at directing Uncle Vanya with the definitive idea of it being about the human condition. Not about plot, or characters, but solely about the “meaning of life” for lack of a better phrase; basically a discourse with character.
Certainly, I’d agree that Chekov reflects on life. However, where I think this Vanya misses is that Chekov is also funny. Dark funny, but funny. The performance is based on David Mamet’s (Redbelt) adaptation of Chekov’s play. Gregory further adapted it for this screen version. The resulting script is beautifully written and full of wonderful moments and monologues. But even the script seems to have missed some of the poking of fun at the characters and the audience. How much of that is Mamet and how much Gregory’s surgery, I can’t say as I don’t have the source material to compare.
The challenge of filming a play is that the heightened aspect of the script almost always feels forced. In addition, this film captures only one version of the play. It had been work-shopped for 5 years and performed privately only 12 times prior to capturing it on film. Each of these performances was done with the audience very much as the onlookers are in the film itself. And each performance was reportedly markedly different, by design.
Louis Malle chose to tackle this tale and capture it for posterity after seeing several of the very limited live performances that Gregory’s group put together. His direction is practically invisible, allowing us to live in the play/rehearsal the way it was conceived to be performed live, inches from the actors. By the end of the production, it feels real, nearly natural.
The cast are all equally powerful, starting with Wallace Shawn (A Master Builder) in the title role. Along with him, Julianne Moore (Freeheld), Brooke Smith (Bates Motel), and Larry Pine (House of Cards) really drive the bulk of the story.
This isn’t really a play, nor is it a film. It is a hybrid of sorts. The “making of” documentary on the disc can explain that better than I in this short space. It certainly provided some confirmations for me about the interpretations as well. You don’t get to see performances like this often, which makes this a great experience. Whether the play and message will resonate I imagine will depend on many things for each individual watching.