Observing its characters’ faults with equanimity, Dover Koshashvili’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Duel” treats the residents of a seaside town in the Caucuses as specimens of humanity’s dual nature. The idyllic setting serves as an ironic backdrop to a story governed by petty morality and impenetrable whims, behavior that can be finely calculated or impetuous and animalistic.
Andrew Scott heads the British cast of Anton Chekhov’s The Duel, playing a bitter, self-loathing man who has coaxed a married woman (Fiona Glascott) into living with him and now plans to rid himself of her before she catches wind of her husband’s death and starts thinking about remarriage. Notwithstanding his own morally questionable behavior, he’s quick and definitive in his judgments of others, especially Tobias Menzies as a government functionary. Not every affront is intentional. Glascott inadvertently causes a mild scandal by donning her swimwear in the presence of friend Michelle Fairley, whose loyalties turn out to be fleeting. It’s never entirely clear what Glascott has done to arouse the intentions of the town policeman, played by Mislav Čavajda, but he’s forthright about his expectation that she make good on her alleged promise. Even a married woman living in sin is held to her word; that says a lot about the town’s flexible sense of morality, which is no less stringent for being essentially ad hoc.
Koshashvili (Late Marriage) films the settings like still-life paintings, catching the glint of light along a half-eaten loaf of bread. He doesn’t exactly find beauty, but he zeroes in on fascination in the squabbles, consequential and otherwise, between the town’s inhabitants. Scott himself is repulsed by nature, and by the local zoologist, whose profession he finds vulgar. As the zoologist puts it, Scott could look at a bunch of grapes and see only how they will look when chewed up and digested, their surface beauty destroyed to serve a biological need.
The Duel never develops an overarching sense of purpose, but the film’s behavioral observations are keen enough that a more pronounced thesis would be superfluous. It’s a pleasure simply to linger in the characters’ company, or at least to watch them from just far enough away to observe them without being judged in return.