The Cherry Orchard

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The Cherry Orchard

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Like Shakespeare's Macbeth, which stage actors believe is cursed, Anton Chekhov's plays have a mysterious power: Out of several dozen film adaptations, only one (1994's Vanya On 42nd Street) endures, at least partially because it hedged its bet and kept the actors on the stage. More common are stolid bores like Michael Cacoyannis' The Cherry Orchard, which turns Chekhov's most highly regarded drama into a creaky nightmare, giving it the sort of dimly reverent Masterpiece Theater treatment that can turn a person off PBS for life. A specialist in literary and theatrical adaptation, the 77-year-old Cacoyannis (Zorba The Greek, Iphigenia) adds a trite pre-credits prologue in turn-of-the-century Paris, but he makes few efforts to breathe life into the material, other than opening up the interiors to equally stifling exteriors. Though the story seethes with class warfare and dramatic upheaval in the wake of Russia's liberation of the serfs, Cacoyannis errs on the side of genteel respectability, sacrificing emotion and verve at the altar of good taste. Leading a great cast with a mishmash of performance styles—some enunciating classically for the stage, others more conspicuously modern—Charlotte Rampling overplays her role as the matriarch of a Russian estate on the verge of collapse. After five years away following her son's drowning death, she returns to her family and servants with very little money, having squandered it on a lover who abandoned her when the well ran dry. But in spite of mounting debts and mortgage payments, she and her brother remain in denial about their situation, flatly refusing when a nouveau riche merchant suggests they cut down their prized cherry orchard to build holiday villas for rent. Meanwhile, summer romance blossoms between Rampling's daughter and an intellectual idealist, while her adopted daughter fends off the awkward advances of a neighbor. When the play is done right, the cascading plotlines come together with melodramatic force, as when the tragically decadent heroine throws a lavish ball while her estate goes up for auction. But Cacoyannis mismanages the relationships so badly that they barely connect, let alone accumulate with the devastating power Chekhov intended. Perhaps it was a mistake to open up The Cherry Orchard for the big screen, since so much of its intensity derives from characters who lead lives of stifling complacency, a feeling better suited to the tight confines of the stage. But even there, the divergent performances, coupled with Cacoyannis' fatal lack of clarity and rhythm, would have made for bad theater.

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