August (1996)
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August (1996)

It is true that great works of literature demand to be reinterpreted every generation or so. It is the responsibility of the reigning generation to take a classic story and place their own spin on it, in effect making it their own. The most notable cases of this tend to be with the works of Shakespeare although other classic authors have been used as the foundation for generational re-working. One interesting attempt was made in the 1996 film ‘August’. It is an adaptation of the classic Russian play ‘Uncle Vanya’ by one of the giants of literature short-story writer, playwright, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. Right on the onset it must be noted that this particular incarnation falls short of attaining its objectives. It is not for lack of trying. The cast is stupendous, and the cinematography incredibly beautiful. Unfortunately this is insufficient to properly capture the intricacies contained in the original work. The undeniably fascinating aspect of this movie is relocating the story from a Russian country estate to a turn of the century Welsh community. While this change should have made the story more accessible to a modern audience thematically the original play does not come across with the same intense emotional impact. Some of this may be the result in greater than usual differences on the cultural level. With a migration of a work by an author such as Shakespeare once you move past the linguistic differences many of the character archetypes are readily relatable to what we know today, or any other time for that matter. These circumstances are relatable to the audience dealing with situations familiar to the viewer. As anyone who has taken a few university literature courses will attest there is a reason why Shakespeare is frequently presented in the undergraduate years while a consideration of Chekhov is often deferred for a more advanced curriculum by student with a deeper exposure to the literature of other cultures. While this is an ambitious attempt it remains a workable adaptation for a more restrictive audience than necessary for commercial or even critical success. If you are a graduate student studying Russian literature you might be able to uncover some greater interest by comparison to the play. For the rest of us the difference with the classic tropes employed in more familiar stories makes it difficult to accept the methodology and underlying flow of this production.

Ieuan Davies (Anthony Hopkins) is 56 and in open defiance to the Victoria era society adhered to by the quaint Welsh community he is peripherally associated to, remains unmarried. Looking back on his life he is in the grips of some degree of angst and confusion as to how it was possible to achieve his age without any significant contribution to show for it. Davies is rapidly coming to a junction in his life that will present him with a crisis of emotional intensity. This situation is mirrored to some extent by an acquaintance of his Dr. Lloyd (Gawn Grainger). He is the typical small town physician who self medicates on a regular basis with the over consumption of alcoholic beverages. There is a significant source of contention between the two men, the classic them of attraction to the same woman, Helen (Kate Burton). Unfortunately for both of them she is the wife of a local elder academician, Professor Alexander Blathwaite (Leslie Phillips). Anything based on a work of Russian literature has to possess a few complicating interpersonal interactions and in this case that comes in the daughter of the Professor and Davies late sister, Hannah, Sian (Rhian Morgan). The Young woman has developed a strong romantic attachment focused on the older doctor. The situation simmers for a prolonged period eventually resulting in a strangely played attempt on the part of Ieuan to permanently dispatch the doctor. One disappointing aspect of this culminating scene is that an experienced actor like Hopkins decided to play the character far too broadly to fully commit to the gravitas that should have been afforded to this moment. Hopkins is well known for extracting exquisite nuances from his portrayals but in the case of this movie, his long anticipated first time as a director, it is unusual that he didn’t play to his strengths as an actor. Just as an aside this is also his initial time serving as the composer for the film’s incidental musical score. While interesting it is good that Sir Anthony will never be at a loss for juicy parts as an actor.

As noted adaptations of the Bard’s plays tend to be more successful largely because his works were mostly created for the general enjoyment of his time; they were crafted for the masses and therefore contained a good deal of action. In contrast to this Russian literature as exemplified by Chekhov tend more to the existential. They are far more cerebral in focus and have a propensity to depend on lengthy dialogue frequently isolated from overt actions. Again, this is fine and ‘August’ represents a faithful adaptation of the original play and that sowed the seeds for it falling short. The movie go to great lengths to depict the frequently intense dialogue but most members of the audience expect this to underline activity instead of being expected to carry the story. On the up side the cinematography by Robin Vidgeon is haunting beautiful. It is unusual that his framing and use of camera angles is so intriguing since much of his prior experience has been in the action laden horror flicks including several of the ‘Hellraiser’ franchise. In any case he turns the Welsh landscape into a participant to the story. This film is part of MGM/UA’s recent push to release some of the more esoteric titles in their inventory. It may not be for everyone but it will find an audience.

Posted 09/17/11

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