Starring: Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore, Brooke Smith, Larry Pine, Andre Gregory
By Greg Klymkiw
"When we come to die, we'll die submissively. Beyond the grave we will testify that we've suffered, that we've wept that we've known bitterness. And God will take pity on us and we will live a life of radiant joy and beauty and we'll look back on this life of our unhappiness with tenderness and we'll smile. And in that new life we shall rest, we shall rest to the songs of the angels in a firmament arrayed in jewels and we'll look down and we'll see evil, all the evil in the world and all our sufferings bathed in a perfect mercy and our lives grown sweet as a caress." - Sonya's final monologue in David Mamet's adaptation of Anton Chekhov's play "Uncle Vanya".
If your idea of a good time is not watching two hours of wasted lives, think again. When those same wasted lives come to the collective realization - almost like a series of epiphanies - of just how much they've failed to fulfill their dreams and/or promise, you'll have been rewarded with a journey that will have enriched your very being.
Vanya on 42nd Street is raw in its emotion and approach. Watching Louis Malle's film of the David Mamet adaptation of the great play "Uncle Vanya" is one of the best ways to experience Anton Chekhov on film.
The final product represents the culmination of Andre Gregory's grand theatrical experiment of taking some of New York's greatest actors and rehearsing Vanya for two years with no intention of ever staging it. Gregory, (the Andre of Malle's My Dinner With Andre) had a dream - to create an ideal opportunity for great actors to intimately dive into the depths of Chekhov's multi-layered work - to get to know the text so deeply that the journey's end would, in fact, never end. The goal was to infuse these actors with Chekhov's genius and, at the same time, for very select audiences - usually in the living rooms of friends' apartments - to experience, from Gregory's vantage point, both the journey of the actors and that of Chekhov's characters.
Malle attended one of these legendary living room performances and immediately decided a film version that captured both Gregory's vision and the truly astounding interpretations of Mamet's adaptation of Chekhov's work was in order. With Malle's unique eye as a cinematic storyteller - blending both his documentary background with his deft and delicate touch for drama, Malle framed a performance of the play as a run-through with the actors - in their street clothes and in the environs of a crumbling old theatre on 42nd Street in New York.
At first, we're quite aware of this conceit, but as the magic of Chekhov overtakes us, it's impossible not to be drawn in by the brilliance of the original play, Mamet's adaptation (more of an edit, or polish - to strip out a few formal tropes of theatre from Chekhov's period), a gorgeously composed, though unobtrusive camera and last, but not least, a cast that includes actors who seem like they were born to evoke Chekhov's universal themes and language.
Vanya (Wallace Shawn, the writer of Malle's My Dinner With Andre and who played the "My" of the title) is the brother-in-law of Serebryakov (George Gaynes), a stuffy academic who acquired an old country estate by marrying his first wife (Vanya's late sister) and has now, left his widowhood behind to marry the unmistakably beautiful Yelena (Julianne Moore). With his niece Sonya (Brooke Smith), Vanya manages the estate and the business affairs of his late sister's blusteringly pretentious husband. The family receives visits from Astrov (Larry Pine), a physician constantly called to tend to Serebryakov's ailments - most of which are of the psychosomatic variety.
Vanya and Yelena are greatly suited to each other in every respect - save for the fact that she finds him physically repulsive. Astrov, along with Vanya, is madly in love with Yelena. She's physically attracted to him, but they clearly do not share the intellect and humour she enjoys with Vanya. Then there's Sonya - who is madly in love with Astrov, who barely notices she's there - hanging on his every move, word and gesture. Serebryakov loves Yelena, but fears he is too old for her. Yelena, clearly has no love for Serebryakov, but she is intent to stay faithful to him.
These roiling passions - all unrequited - come to a head when Serebryakov decides he wishes to sell the estate and move to Finland. This would displace the whole family and housekeeping staff. Vanya is finally, after years of subservience and servitude, forced into action.
Wallace Shawn is a perfect Vanya - a funny, charming, yet occasionally sad-sack nebbish. His lovely performance elicits an equal number of laughs and tears. Julianne Moore is utterly radiant as the object of everyone's affection and Larry Pine as the physician who abandons everything for a love that will never be, is a perfect skewed-reverse-image of Shawn's Vanya. The revelation is the sad, funny and yes, beautiful Charlotte Moore as Sonya - her character creeps about in the background, yet when she exudes a force before unimagined, it instills the overwhelmingly expressive feeling that, "Of course! Her actions and words make total sense!" Moore deliver's Sonya's final speech from the play with such gentle, persuasive force that I can't imagine anyone watching it dry-eyed.
Vanya on 42nd Street is an extraordinary experience. Malle's career was one in which he delivered many great films. This one in particular made me and his numerous admirers wait with baited breath for his next work. Sadly it never came. It was his last film before he died of lymphoma one year after making the picture.
I can't think of a more perfect swan song.
"Vanya on 42nd Street" is currently available on a gorgeous new Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection. In addition to the stunning new transfer, it is accompanied by modest, but at the same time, extremely informative and revealing extra features.