The Cherry Orchard

on February 22, 2002 by Jordan Reed
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   Adapting plays for the screen can be a difficult enough task on its own, but attempting to commit the wordy, weighty work of Russian writer Anton Chekhov to celluloid must be brutal. Now venerable Greek filmmaker Michael Cacoyannis ("Electra," "Zorba the Greek") valiantly tackles Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," first seen on stage in Moscow in 1904. But whether the fault lies with Cacoyannis's interpretation or the original play itself, this cluttered and jumpy adaptation tries to pack in too many morals and emotions, jerking from the mundane into the philosophical at the drop of a hat and making for a confusing, inconsistent and tedious two-and-half hours.

   Set against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century Russia, "The Cherry Orchard" revolves around Madame Lyubov Ranevskaya (Charlotte Rampling) and her return to her family estate five years after fleeing due to the untimely death of her son. Waiting for her there are her brother Gaev (Alan Bates), daughters Anya (Tushka Bergen) and Varya (Katrin Cartlidge) and various servants and acquaintances. As Madame Lyubov tries to re-acclimate herself to her old life, bad news arrives in the form of family friend Lopakhin (Owen Teale), who tells her that unless she agrees to sell off part of the property--including its famous cherry orchard--she will be forced to auction off everything and be left penniless.

   However treacherous and forbidding it may be to bring the difficult work of Chekhov to the screen, Louis Malle did a bang-up job in his 1994 film "Vanya on 42nd Street," based on another Chekhov piece, "Uncle Vanya" (an 1899 revision of an earlier play entitled "The Wood Demon"). The impromptu air and casual look of Malle's "Vanya"--it consisted of a play rehearsal in an old theater, with actors dressed in their everyday clothes--proved a less laborious experience (it was also 20 minutes shorter), allowing Chekhov's existential angst to flow without being too stuffy in the process. Cacoyannis, here opting for period garb and country scenery, proves that fancy costumes, quality actors and a bigger budget can't save a film from being a confusing drudgery.    Starring Charlotte Rampling, Alan Bates and Katrin Cartlidge. Directed, written and produced by Michael Cacoyannis. A Kino release. Drama. Unrated. Running time: 141 min.

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