Picked Flick #74: Vanya on 42nd Street
Nonetheless, even a Julianne Moore disciple can't start a write-up of Vanya on 42nd Street with a nod to Julianne, or even to Louis Malle, whose movie this is, or even to André Gregory, whose minimalist workshop production of Uncle Vanya is the subject of this loving, sublimely attentive film. If you're talking Vanya on 42nd Street you have to start with Chekhov, a playwright so very resistant to screen treatment and so very easy to misconstrue in areas of tone, delivery, and intent. The infamous question of how Chekhov could possibly have considered plays like Uncle Vanya to be comedies is the task of a talented troupe to unravel, a rare feat to which this film makes us so thrillingly privy. Translated by David Mamet with economic brilliance, Chekhov's play achieves such concise pscyhological insight with so sure and light a hand that it can almost make you blush, and yet for all of the characters' many endowmentsDr. Astrov's charisma and his ethical grasp of nature, Sonya's work ethic and sad-eyed resilience, Yelena's exquisite beauty and stunning indolence, Vanya's sour wit and impatience with pretensethey are none of them much armed with a capacity for change. As the script transcribes an arc from one domestic arrangement to a different and notably smaller one, nearly all of the characters' hopes and plans continue to exceed their grasp, almost by definition. "Comedy" thus appears to name their steady commitment to ideals they can't well afford or attain, and their rueful awareness of this very dilemma, to which, in private moments and with the right ears to bend, almost all of them confess.
Capturing such a delicate lacework of feeling and compromise is difficult enough, but Malle does more than document a stirring production. He subtly tailors a form of Chekhovian direction that alights just as softly but lucidly on its subjects. From the piquant prologue of the actors' arrivals and chitchats, Vanya gorgeously idles into its own opening lines with a simple cut and a gliding camera move; the effect is similar to how Bergman introduces his Magic Flute, and the emotional rewards that follow are comparably rich. Cinematographer Declan Quinn, refining his own techniques in line with the scrupulous actors, adduces the angles and auras of each face with total perfection, carrying Astrov from hardy to dissipated or Sonya from plain to luminous in no time at all. The seeds of his smart, observational cinematography in Leaving Las Vegas, Monsoon Wedding, and In America are already flourishing here, not least in how he incorporates the darkened theater itself into his compositions, choosing exactly when and to what extent each character emerges from absolute shadow. These camera regimens indicate just how cinematic this Vanya is despite its unfussy, unfurnished groundedness in theatrical art. Close-ups, gingerly inserts, and other privileged views of the actors do as much to convey the characters as their trained vocal precision and consummate faith in their material. "No, one would not describe this family as happy," confesses Moore's Yelena, but has this actress ever laughed so much and with such fine degrees of implication in any other film? Her chuckling, abrupt admission that she would have enjoyed marrying a younger man is a sublime Chekhovian moment, as is Larry Pine's garrulous, principled, but self-absorbed defense of the Russian forest. Another glory is Wallace Shawn's deft application of his unique, adenoidal delivery to a killjoy character who nonetheless requires our sympathy, even though he has no obvious claim on it. Shawn finds and defends those claims, working as seamlessly as everything else in the filmexcept, of course, when Malle or Gregory wants us to notice and consider the seams, the determinate environment, the historical and cultural distance that suddenly feels so much less distant. In a year whose other breakout movies (Pulp Fiction, Heavenly Creatures, Natural Born Killers) were such virtuosic plunges into wild aesthetic surfaces, Vanya on 42nd Street is, in the words of Pablo Neruda, as bright as a lamp, as simple as a ring, remote and candid. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)