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

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test