19th century Russian writer Ivan Turgenev’s play “A Month in the Country” is one of the staples of the theatre’s classical repertoire. The National Theatre mounted a translation of it by Patrick Marber only last year as “Three Days in the Country”, various films have been made, largely for television, over the years and the play has also provided the basis for a ballet and an opera.
This version is in the Russian language, so is presumably targeted at the Russian domestic audience and foreign art market but as an international co-production and presumably to give it a bit more appeal to Western filmgoers, it has French actress Sylvie Testud in a supporting role as the governess and Ralph Fiennes in the male lead. Fiennes valiantly learned all his lines in Russian, though he was ultimately dubbed by a native Russian actor for the Russian market. Now he has learned to speak the language better, he has redubbed his own lines in Russian for the Western audience. No wonder the film has taken two years to reach us!
The story concerns Natalya Petrovna (Vartanyan), the bored wife of a rich landowner, and her husband’s friend Rakitin (Fiennes), who has been in love with her for years, whose attentions she enjoys but will never allow the relationship to develop beyond a flirtation. When a handsome young student Alexey Belyaev (Nikita Volkov) is appointed to tutor her young son Kolya, Natalya develops a crush on him but finds herself in rivalry for his attentions with her 17 year old ward Vera (Levanova).
The film looks very pretty – lovely costumes and the gorgeous, sun drenched and, when matters get complicated, symbolically rain drenched estate is beautifully shot. It is indeed a prettily acted and largely faithful film version of stage play. It is though a pity the director has cut out the servants’ scenes, as in the original play they act as an earthy counterpoint to the self obsessed dramatic turns of Natalya and the others, which is what we concentrate on here.
Vartanyon is stunningly beautiful as Natalya. The character however is selfish, self obsessed and self delusional and the centre of this version of the story is very much her obvious jealousy of Vera’s youth in the knowledge that her own beauty won’t last forever and her fear that she will soon lose her sexual power. Levanova as Vera is sweetly young, almost child like at first though she matures and hardens in the course of the story and Volkov as Alexey is an appealing young man. Fiennes as Rakitin does what is required in what is a somewhat unrewarding role – all soulful melancholy, unrequited love and soppy smiles.
Apart from Vera, Natalya’s husband Alexey Islaev (Baluev), who fears his oldest friend Rakitin has betrayed him, and the tutor, who is going to lose his job through no fault of his own, succeed in engaging our sympathy but the main characters, Natalya and Rakitin, fail to do so. As they moon about talking of love, one is tempted to think they should grow up and find something more useful to do, while the direction of the film is a bit on the heavy handed side at times.
This is a largely enjoyable film version of the play, which perhaps emphasises the shallowness of the main characters more than theatre productions usually do. It is also interesting to see it performed and made by Russians in its original language.
Review by Carol Allen