Friday July 28, 1995
"Uncle Vanya," one of the Russian playwright's classic works, has been the subject of two recent but very different productions. Louis Malle and Andre Gregory's brilliant "Vanya on 42nd Street" appeared late last year to uniformly rapturous reviews, and now comes "Country Life," which is more like variations on a "Vanya" theme than a full-dress reinterpretation.
Written by, directed and starring Michael Blakemore, "Country Life" had the interesting concept of transposing Chekov to the Australian outback, the desolate New South Wales territory to be specific, and somewhat modernizing the time frame to 1919, just after the conclusion of the First World War.
Ever resilient, the play survives the change of scenery, but many of Blakemore's other choices are not so successful. He has decided to use this most nuanced writer's work as the skeleton on which to construct a broad, buffoonish farce. Everything is cruder and coarser and that is not necessarily an improvement.
Returning home after 25 years in England, 22 of them spent as the theater critic for the London Standard, is the fussy Alexander (Blakemore). While he has been occupied with higher things, the family sheep farm has been managed by Sally (Kerry Fox), Alexander's daughter by his late first wife, and Uncle Jack (John Hargreaves), that poor woman's brother.
And Alexander is not returning alone. In addition to his all-important sinus drops, he is bringing with him Deborah (Greta Scacchi), his stunning new wife. Though the sheep don't seem to notice, everyone else in the neighborhood does, and what with Alexander's insistence on eating fashionably later and his wife's come-hither looks, life on the farm is very far from normal.
Especially disconcerted are Uncle Jack, once a local dandy but now mainly notable for a very red face, and Dr. Max (Sam Neill). Though he too drinks too much, this pacifist doctor who believes in helping the aborigines and not raping the land has no trouble attracting Deborah's attention.
Australia-born Blakemore, who did the regrettably little-seen "Privates on Parade," made his directing reputation in the London theater. He has acquitted himself honorably enough here, helped by solid acting, especially from the versatile Kerry Fox ("An Angel at My Table," "Shallow Grave").
But though some of the changes Blakemore's made (the incorporation of World War I and the addition of more obvious sexuality) are interesting, making things cruder across the board is not a winning idea. An extended scene of drunkenness by a hired man is hell to sit through, and dialogue like "When was the last time you called me Booboo" are not an improvement on the original. All in all, if Chekhov is on your mind, renting "Vanya on 42nd" is a much better way to go.
Country Life, 1995. PG-13, for some sex-related scenes. Released by Miramax Films. Director Michael Blakemore. Producer Robin Dalton. Screenplay by Michael Blakemore. Cinematographer Stephen Windon. Editor Nicholas Beauman. Costumes Wendy Chuck. Production design Laurence Eastwood. Music Peter Best. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes. Sam Neill as Dr. Max Askey. Greta Scacchi as Deboray Voysey. John Hargreaves as Jack Dickens. Kerry Fox as Sally Voysey. Michael Blakemore as Alexander Voysey.