Those skeptical that there’s life left in the costume drama will find it and more in Anton Chekhov’s The Duel, Georgian-born Israeli director Kosashvili’s unshowy but sharp take on the novella of the same name. Literal-minded adaptations are usually a matter of timing and performance, and Kosashvili - working with an English-speaking cast - directs his actors so that each line cuts through the musty air.
Pulled in separate directions by lust, propriety and his own restlessness, Laevsky (Scott) is a kindred spirit to the hero of Kosashvili’s Late Marriage (2001). He makes sport of insults and takes a kind of bemused pride in his contrarian behavior. He’s conducted a long-term affair with the married Nadya (Glascott), but as the movie opens, he confesses to having fallen out of love with her. The timing is bad, since her husband has just died; Laevsky’s reluctance to do right by her irks would-be suitors and particularly a scientist (Menzies), who considers himself Laevsky’s principled opposite.
The material is straight-faced, but Scott’s floppy, slightly sarcastic performance lends it a dry wit; not since Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James has a screen actor so audaciously reached for a register that might seem at odds with the material. As in Late Marriage, the lovers are a physical contrast - part of the irony stems from outwardly proper Nadya’s attraction to the least kempt man on screen. The duel itself won’t suppress anyone’s memories of Barry Lyndon, but as a taut climax to a kind of filmmaking that’s rarely attempted for reasons other than baiting Oscar, it’ll do.