Tuesday, February 28, 2012
New on Blu: "Vanya on 42nd Street"
The adaptation is by David Mamet, and director Gregory first assembled this cast for a series of workshop-style rehearsals, later performed (only a few times) for a small, invited audience. He cast Shawn in the title role, so it only seems natural that the film version fell into the hands of Louis Malle, director of their classic My Dinner with André. (It would be his final feature film; he died the year after its release.) As with the earlier effort, it is a small film with an interest in talk--this time, that of Chekhov by way of Mamet. That pairing sounds about as appealing as peanut butter and mustard, but it works; this is a thankfully accessible adaptation, managing to make the Russian dramatist's play approachable without thwarting the poetic tendencies of the author (or, in a very different way, the adapter).
The cast is filled with recognizable faces--chief among them Shawn, cinematically immortal thanks to his turn in The Princess Bride, as delightful as ever here. His Vanya is wistful and intelligent, witty yet deeply unsatisfied; he handles most of the tumbling transitions well, though he does quiet coldness more convincingly than shouting anger (which always seems unfortunately on the verge of "Inconceivable!" territory). By the time of the film's release, Julianne Moore had gained considerable name recognition in the indie film community (thanks to her, ahem, memorable work in Short Cuts), and was thus rather disproportionately spotlighted in the film's advertising. But it is a masterful and radiant piece of work, conflicted and subdued, a whirlwind of emotions brewing just under her confident surface.
A few other performers make brief impressions (George Gaynes shows depths you wouldn't have suspected from Punky Brewster and the Police Academy movies); the most revelatory is Brooke Smith, best known for screaming from the bottom of a well in Silence of the Lambs. Here, as wallflower Sonya, she's utterly heartbreaking--watch carefully the way she receives a bit of bad news from Moore's Yelena, even before it's been delivered. The entire ensemble is good, though, and they work beautifully together, particularly in the long early stretch of searching conversations that go late into the night, when truths seems more easily told.
Malle finds certain cinematic possibilities in the piece; most of them are successful, like Shawn's delivery of an important monologue directly into a slowly-approaching camera, though there's a strange moment at the beginning of the "second act" where a brief inner monologue of Moore's is heard as a voice-over, oddly breaking our sense of the rehearsal-hall reality. For the most part, though, Malle seems to see his job as recording the play, almost in a documentary fashion (complete with a subtly handheld camera). In a lesser play, with lesser actors, this would grow tiresome quickly. Here, it is riveting.
Vanya on 42nd Street is a film filled with fine moments, but the best comes at the very end, and it is one that deftly summarizes the strength of the entire enterprise. Sonya has a sad speech of quiet resignation, and as Brooke Smith delivers it, the words transform her--and she, in turn, transforms the words, finding the hope buried within them, merging the bitter and the sweet into something sublime. "We shall rest to the songs of the angels," she tells poor Uncle Vanya. "I know you've had no joy in your life, but just wait." In that moment, we've forgotten about the actors, or the costumes, or the sets, or what is missing. We're focused on what is there: the words, the powerful, magnificent words. That is what this fine film is really all about.
"Vanya on 42nd Street" is out today on DVD and Blu-ray in a new edition from the Criterion Collection. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.