The Cherry Orchard Movie Review

Actors understandably welcome the opportunity to perform Chekhov, whose plays are painfully funny in their quiet observation of human folly. In Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters, we recognize some part of ourselves. Renowned director Michael Cacoyannis, who helmed Zorba the Greek in 1964, assembles a powerhouse international cast for his screen interpretation of The Cherry Orchard, including Alan Bates (Gosford Park), Katrin Cartlidge (Breaking the Waves), and Melanie Lynskey (Heavenly Creatures). That great horror actor Michael Gough is well typecast as an ancient butler, and grand dame Charlotte Rampling's timeless iconic presence lends itself beautifully to the tragic Madame Lyubov Andreyevna Raneskaya.

Despite the remarkable assemblage of talent, Cacoyannis' Cherry Orchard feels self-aware of adapting a renowned classic from stage to screen. The cinematography is handsome and stately, but more appropriate to the colorful orchards and vast family estate, the 1900 costumes, the theatrical entrances and exits, than to the intimacy of Chekhov's vivid characters. (It almost makes one long for the hand-held documentary treatment of Louis Malle's seminal Vanya on 42nd Street.) The stylistic choices here take a while to get used to, especially during a drawn-out prologue, absent in the original text, as Madame Lyubov and her buoyant teenage daughter Anna (Tushka Bergen) make elaborate preparations to return to their Russian estate after a self-imposed exile. Some may be exhausted by this Masterpiece Theater treatment (lingering over every piece of luggage) before Chekhov's social entanglements kick in -- which happens shortly after the dozen major characters have assembled at their estate.

As members of the aristocracy, Madame Lyubov and her gregarious brother (Bates) subscribe to the grand manner, throw parties, entertain guests, and ignore their ever-increasing debts. It seems unfathomable that a new world order of industrial progress is right around the corner. Like a harbinger of doom, their neighbor, self-made man Lopahin (wily newcomer Owen Teale) circulates among them, warning that their land will be auctioned off unless they sell a portion of their beloved cherry orchard. (His exasperated dialogue might be paraphrased as, "You must sell the orchard! You must sell the orchard! You must sell the orchard! Oh, you silly, silly fools! You must sell the orchard!") But no one listens, as the deadline grows ever closer. Relationships blossom among the servants, and a never-spoken attraction emerges between Lopahin and Lyubov's prim eldest daughter (Cartlidge, nicely cast against type).

As the financial crisis reaches its peak, a fanciful soiree is thrown as the family waits for a miracle. Those who read Chekhov will know the inevitable outcome, but the joys of watching The Cherry Orchard aren't in the ticking time bomb plot. Like the superior Gosford Park, it's a collection of moments that illuminate the rigors of class structure, made accessible through remarkable performances. Cartlidge is particularly stunning, her thin frame made rigid by constricting dresses. She's seen marching through the house in a commanding stride, wayward servants begrudgingly obliging her whims. Alan Bates is simply charming, selling the comedy of his absent-minded noblesse and finding sulky pathos within his corpulence. When asked if he'd like to take a walk in the fields, he doesn't say anything, but his expression is that of the out-of-shape kid in gym class who'd really rather not play volleyball today.

Badly played Chekhov is unendurable, generally the case when it's handled without a light touch. The Cherry Orchard is somewhere in between, too self-serious in its formalism and blessed with the actors as counterpunch. But it's enjoyable in the way long summer afternoons can be, and once I fell into its peculiar rhythms it was easier to give it the benefit of the doubt. Woody Allen has been making some of the best Chekhov films for years, and they aren't even straight adaptations. Those curious to see the roots of Woody's labor will find a sometimes daunting, often amusing testament in this well pruned Cherry Orchard.

Aka Varya.


Comments

The Cherry Orchard Rating

" Good "

Rating: PG, 1999

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