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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)

"The truth, no matter how bad, is always better than an uncertainty."
- Yelena (Julianne Moore)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: October 20, 2002

Stars: Julianne Moore, Wallace Shawn, Brooke Smith, George Gaynes
Other Stars: Larry Pine, Phoebe Brand, Lynn Cohen, Jerry Mayer
Director: Louis Malle

MPAA Rating: PG for thematic material
Run Time: 02h:00m:04s
Release Date: September 24, 2002
UPC: 043396749870
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B+ A-C+B- D

DVD Review

Chekhov's plays don't seem well suited to film, as their plotting and stories are not their strong suit. Chekhov lacks the melodramatic flair of, say, Ibsen or Strindberg, and of course English-speaking audiences can't appreciate his elegant use of words, for our experience is necessarily mediated by his translators. Chekhov productions tend either to be overbearing or boring—too little subtext with the former, nothing but subtext with the latter.

And so unless you're a die-hard member of the Actors Studio, or something, you may come to this movie with certain trepidation, and you come by it rightfully. But Chekhov's delicate tale of unrequited love in a Russian country house fares remarkably well in this version, as it's neither a museum piece nor a misguided effort to reinvent Chekhov for a modern audience. Preciousness creeps in now and again, but overall, the good doctor is well taken care of here.

There is indeed something a little smug and self-congratulatory in the exercise, especially when you learn about the origins of the project—Andre Gregory started rehearsing actors in the play in 1989, not for performance purposes, but as some sort of ongoing exploration and exercise. It sounds like the worst dramarama stuff you ever encountered in high school or college—rehearse a play for five years, and never perform it.

But it actually kind of works, because the acting is so good, because all that time has given the performers such a clear understanding of their intentions and the subtext, which are so often lost in English-language productions of Chekhov. What's especially nice, too, is that the geography doesn't overwhelm the actors—these characters are Russian in the same manner that Romeo and Juliet are Italian. Their nationality is a fact worth noting, but it doesn't mean that everybody has to wear gigantic bearskin hats. Chekhov's play is essentially a loosely connected series of scenes, over a period months in a grand Russian estate, of characters desperately unhappy with their lots in life, but terrified of change and the unknown; what plot there is serves to yoke together a run of psychologically charged two-character interactions, in which matters of the heart inevitably put these people at cross purposes.

Wallace Shawn plays the title character, and he's better in Vanya's sardonic moments than when it's time for his ardent professions of love. Julianne Moore does clean, unobstructed work, and she's a lovely Yelena; this may well be her best screen performance to date. The cast is rounded out with actors who may be lesser known but are very much up to the material. George Gaynes, who is so charmingly buffoonish as Dustin Hoffman's suitor in Tootsie and who suffered through all those Police Academy movies and episodes of Punky Brewster, is appropriately bombastic but also heartbroken as Serebryakov, husband of the much younger Yelena. Larry Pine is a forthright and melancholy Astrov, the physician; given that the playwright too was a doctor, it's easy to see this character as a stand-in for Chekhov. And Brooke Smith, perhaps most notorious for being stuck at the bottom of a well throughout much of The Silence of the Lambs, knifes through you as Sonia, with her pangs of unrequited love for Astrov.

This was also a reunion project of sorts for the alumni of My Dinner With Andre, with Louis Malle handling the film directing chores of Gregory's stage production. Chekhov's act breaks are indicated by moving around the decrepit New Amsterdam Theater in Times Square—as one of the spectators says about it, "It's all crumbling, but it's all so beautiful." This decaying theater that once housed the Ziegfeld Follies has, like much of the rest of its neighborhood, since been Disneyfied—it looks nicer and cleaner now, but something was lost in sanitizing it, no doubt. Gregory chatters with some of the attendees between the acts, and it feels a little forced and stagy; I suppose something was necessary to cover the moves from one part of the theater to another, but this isn't an especially successful choice. There's also one strange directorial moment—Chekhov has written several monologues for his characters, to be delivered by an actor alone on stage. The others talk directly to the camera or the audience, but Moore is shot silently as her interior monologue plays out on a voice-over. It's a jarring technical intrusion that dents the carefully sustained illusion of truth that holds for much of the rest of the movie.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: Many, many scratches interfere terribly with the image quality; I cannot imagine that this project had much of a budget, but still, it's a disappointment to see the print so badly scarred. Otherwise, the transfer is certainly respectable, with consistent color levels, though the blacks are a little grayer than they might be.

Image Transfer Grade: C+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno


Audio Transfer Review: This may be the limitations of the shoot, but occasionally, when an actor's back is to the camera, he or she might as well be speaking in the original Russian, given the severe incomprehensibility of the soundtrack. Those missteps aren't too frequent, fortunately, and otherwise the 2.0 track more or less delivers the goods.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in Spanish with remote access
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring The House of Mirth, Lost in Yonkers, The Spanish Prisoner
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: A good amount of chapter stops and trailers for three other Sony releases are the only extras.

Extras Grade: D

 

Final Comments

If you've long wondered what all the fuss over Chekhov is about, this is a much better place to start than merely reading the plays; and if you're just interested in some excellent ensemble acting, you'll find it here. Technical elements could be stronger, and the extras are essentially nonexistent, but there's no shortage of heartbreak, rendered with empathy and skill.

 


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