Vanya on 42nd Street
Director: Louis Malle
Rating: A film you'll remember
Vanya on 42nd Street is Louis Malle's filmization of David Mamet's adaptation of Anton Chekov's classic play, Uncle Vanya.
Is it necessary to update Chekov's 95 year old drama for modern audiences? Probably not, but can it be done successfully? Emphatically, yes. Could anyone have done it better than Louis Malle, via David Mamet? I doubt it. This is a powerful piece of film. Chekov created a small body of plays that have had a profound influence on twentieth century arts. They are dark, bare, and intimate. Malle's film has the same qualities.
For this Vanya, we are witness to a rehearsal of the Chekov piece. The actors are working in the abandoned New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street. The grand theatre once presented the Zeigfeld Follies; now it is an aged ruin. Its stage is unusable, so the troupe of actors rehearses in its lobby areas.
They play the drama straight through, with only slight breaks between acts, and an occasional siren from Times Square to remind us we're in 1990s Manhattan. The opening moments of the film convince us there is little difference between our lives and those of Chekov's 1899 Russian characters. The once magnificent theatre quickly becomes the perfect set, beautifully representing the Russian country manor house where the play is set. Our actors become Chekov's characters. The transition from the streets of Manhattan to 19th century Russia takes only moments, and is seamless, and complete.
Once we're in the play, we begin to explore the psyches of the small cast of characters. Wallace Shawn gives a vital performance as Vanya. Julianne Moore creates a vivacious Yelena, making the character absolutely her own. Other performances are solid as well. Early in the film, Brooke Smith seems to be acting, reminding us we're still on 42nd Street, but later she becomes the young Sonya, in a riveting presentation.
Characteristic of Chekov, there is virtually no action. Everything happens in the dialogue, and in a few soliloquies. It is the most demanding sort of vehicle for actors. Everything must be conveyed with voice and face. And the production is continuously intense; there are no lulls, no moments of respite.
The principal characters are Uncle Vanya and his niece Sonya, Professor Serybryakov, and his young second wife Yelena, and Dr. Astrov, who attends the professor, and becomes a persistent house guest. Sonya is the professor's daughter from his first marriage. Vanya and Sonya care for the estate and the professor. All the men in the play are in love with Yelena. Nobody is in love with the plain Sonya, though she is desperate to be loved. Vanya and the professor inflict their neuroses on all. It's all complex, very personal, and totally involving.
With Chekov's rich characterization, and these potent performances, you will surely identify with one or more of the characters. If not, ask the theatre attendant to call 911; you're comatose.
It is my belief that characterization makes film. This movie has reinforced my view, once again. It's reassuring to know there are filmmakers who love their art this much.
© 1996, J. C. Adamson