The problem with writer-director Michael Cacoyannis’ adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is that he has applied too much creativity to the task of opening up the play, in an effort to make it seem more like a cinematic rather than a stage-bound production.
This is not a direct transcription of Chekhov, it’s an adaptation written by Cacoyannis, which is fine, though some of his interpretations obscure the original text. Several things, like a prologue in Paris and the actual auction of the Ranevsky cherry orchard, are no longer offstage events, but are shown. Scenes have been shuffled and rearranged, and a great deal of dialog has been cut, especially during the play’s first half. The scenes wholly invented by Cacoyannis are unobtrusive and the shufflings have an emotional if not structural logic. Still, it’s the lack of verbiage that gives the movie an initial and somewhat lingering feel of disjunction, a sense of scene-setting that doesn’t start to cohere until the film’s second hour.
But if Chekhov’s story of a Russian family in the last days of decline, with its former grandeur and present vulnerability symbolized by their magnificent cherry orchard, seems to sputter and spurt on the way to its bittersweet conclusion, the film remains worth seeing if only for its performances. Charlotte Rampling is Lyubov, returned from Paris after five years (an exile prompted by the death of her young son) and Alan Bates is her brother, Gaev, a somewhat childish man who can’t bring himself to face the family’s obvious precariousness. The late Katrin Cartlidge is Luybov’s adopted daughter, passively floating into spinsterhood, while Tuska Bergen is Anya, the play’s one sweetly naive character. Best of all is Owen Teale as the family’s would-be rescuer, a former serf and now self-made merchant who’s keenly aware of the irony of his situation.
They’re good performances, though they would no doubt have been better if they weren’t burdened with Cacoyannis’ eccentric interpretation. One can understand his desire not to bore the audience, but it seems to have backfired. Chekhov with his famous idle-chatter-with-an-undercurrent reduced is Chekhov seriously diminished.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].