Set coordinates for the big screen, Mr Chekhov

It's a well-known maxim that plays rarely transfer well to film, but, s ays Adam Mars-Jones, Louis Malle's new version of Uncle Vanya could be an excep tion

Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky in Bengali doesn't sound like a good fit, but Chekhov in Bengali is perfectly plausible - a translation a character in Vanya on 42nd Street claims her grandfather made. The only cultures in which Chekhov would make no sense would be those with no concept of disappointment.

Despite the addition of the character with the grandfather, really only one of the play's audience, Vanya on 42nd Street is a faithful account of Uncle Vanya, or rather a record, directed by Louis Malle, of Andre Gregory's stage production as adapted by David Mamet. Malle's part in the venture seems slight, but no matter. This can only be a recovery after the prime clunker known to the world as Damage.

What we see on screen is, in theory, a late rehearsal of the play, its first run-through in front of the director and a couple of spectators, who are joined by any actors not currently performing. Gregory, playing himself as the director, announces the beginning of each act, and even says "Okay, let's take a little break," halfway through the play. Actors and audience chat for a minute or two before they go back to their places. This is a paradoxical sort of intermission for the cinema audience, since the house lights stay down, but it preserves a stage rhythm.

A number of stage conventions remain in place, in a way that is unusual in a film, but works well. Someone raises his hand to a lamp and it comes on, with a tiny rep-theatre delay. A character asks another why she is crying, and for once we are spared cinema's easy tears. Her face is dry, and the emotion doesn't come sloshing towards us on a tide of glycerine.

The production is in modern dress, or rather, what we see is not a dress rehearsal, so the clothes belong to the actors rather than the characters as such. The only period element in the whole film is the theatre where the rehearsal takes place, a virtually derelict auditorium with nets arranged to catch falling plaster, although in its heyday the dressing rooms could accommodate 500 - and needed to when the Ziegfeld Follies were in town. The effect is to contrast the time-ravaged theatre and the myster iously surviving play, in which some moments are almost jarringly contemporary. The doctor, for instance, informed that Vanya is friends with the beautiful Yelena, asks drily, "Already?" - explaining that the only possible progression between a man anda woman is acquaintance, lover, friend.

There are no period props, but Gregory and Malle don't make a point about that. There aren't any grindingly modern equivalents either. In practice, visible I NY mugs and referred-to samovars go perfectly well together, without any need for Nanny the servant to operate an on-stage expresso machine. The stylised informality of the production suits the material, in which intimacy is constantly frustrated. The characters are both eloquent and deluded - in fact, most deluded when most eloquent, dispensing excellent advice but remaining blind to what is under their noses. Malle opts to film from an appropriately intimate distance - at the beginning of Act 2, the actors and stage audience are all sitting round the same table - with occasional reminders thata hand is holding the camera, and without insistent cutting. He doesn't pounce on every moment of realisation or anguish. The language, despite what Mamet's "adaptation credit" would suggest, has not been brought up to date. A speech like Vanya's "I'm done. I am silent. Excuse me", has a modern ring only because of Wallace Shawn's definitively New York delivery of "Excuse me".

But would any New Yorker say "I am silent"? If a sentence like, "Yes, I confess I'm becoming a vulgarian" has passed through the consciousness of the foremost practitioner of contemporary American demotic, what was it like before that process? When Nannysays, "I haven't had simple noodles in the longest time, black with sin as I am," it isn't the folksy Americana of "in the longest time" that makes the strongest impression, but the fustiness of the last phrase. And shouldn't those noodles be "plain"?

The marvellously froggy Wallace Shawn is ideally cast in the title role. He has a Woody Allen quality, in the way he acts out his romantic inadequacy in the hope of turning it into a joke. This Vanya has the humiliation of being so small and bald that the doctor bends down from time to time to kiss the top of his head - an utterly patronising expression of affection. Even his niece Sonya towers over him.

Sonya, played by Brooke Smith, is one of those parts where homeliness gets the better of good looks - not in terms of success in the play, of course, but in the audience's estimation - by the purity of her pain. This Vanya, though, is unusual in giving the victory to glamorous Yelena (Julianne Moore), in a wonderful performance. If Shawn brings a hint of Woody Allen to Vanya, Moore makes Yelena a Diane Keaton before her time. Her line readings have a Keaton inflection, but there is also something deeper, a compulsive mixing of sexual signals, both helpless and calculating. Yelena may say to Vanya, "I'd like it if you left. Now, please," but she gives a laugh between her sentences that complicates the message, maybe even reverses it.

Yelena's worst relationship with a man is more charged than her best relationship with a woman. Trying to befriend her step-daughter, Sonya, she is awkward, unspontaneous - all she is not with a man. There is something pointedly stilted about her attemptto bond with this alien creature by way of a shared glass and a toast of Bruderschaft (brotherhood). Her bonding with Sonya is more of a duel, despite goodwill on both sides, than anything she could have with a man, until the moment she starts to send mixed messages again. Asked if she is happy, she replies "No", with a grin. Yelena is the only character in Vanya on 42nd Street to get a voice-over, as opposed to a monologue - Malle's way, perhaps, of correcting the usual Sonya bias of the play, of establishing that Chekhov doesn't discriminate among disappointments.

n `Vanya on 42nd Street' opens tomorrow; see feature opposite

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