"Uncle Vanya"--cranky, melancholy and definitively fin de siecle--is in fashion as another century wheezes to a close, partly because crankiness and melancholy are in the air. "Vanya" has also proved flexible enough to permit film directors their personal reorientation and relocation: In 1994's "Vanya on 42nd Street" Louis Malle took him to Times Square; in last year's "Country Life" by Michael Blakemore, he emigrated to an Australian sheep ranch.
What Malle was after was stylistic innovation. Blakemore, however, had a specific sociopolitical agenda, using the play as an autopsy table for the infectious Anglophilia that has long suffocated the Australian sense of culture and nationality.
Now, with "August," we find Anthony Hopkins pursuing much the same thing. Making his directing debut with Julian Mitchell's adaptation (to which he apparently contributed), Hopkins holds up Chekhov's unhappy family as a mirror of the Welsh love-hate-envy for all things English.
It is a novel and somewhat noble attempt at reinventing Chekhov, even if the delicate constitutions of the Russian characters can't quite weather the trip. Hopkins, no surprise, is the Vanya character, here called Ieuan, who with Sian (Rhian Morgan), the daughter of his late sister, has toiled for years, unthanked and unrewarded, to make the family estate pay off.
As the story begins, the presumptuous, preposterous Prof. Alexander Blathwaite (Leslie Phillips)--Sian's father, Ieuan's brother-in-law and the longtime benefactor of the family's largesse--has deigned to pay a visit, imposing his London ways on his rural relatives. With Blathwaite is his second wife, the much younger Helen (Kate Burton), whose beauty unsettles the mix and brings long-simmering resentment to a rolling boil.
As a director, Hopkins has specific ideas and executes them well (the music he scored for the movie is quite effective and affecting). Amid his bucolic landscapes and the ornamental details of Welsh country life, he mines moral foreboding and offhanded decadence.
His characters, however, although modeled on Chekhov's and played to the hilt by the mostly Welsh-English cast, do not compose the same chemical balance. Ieuan, percolating amid wrinkled linen and cigar smoke, is a bit too Barry Fitzgerald; Gawn Grainger, who has the profile of John Barrymore and makes a dashing Dr. Lloyd (Astrov in the original), is a tad too insouciant.
Most unsettling, though, is Burton's Helen, who is far too sensible and matter-of-fact to be flummoxed by Lloyd's advances, much less to have married the insufferable professor. Patronizing and flat-toned, she clashes mightily with the rest of Hopkins ethereal/hysterical household.
This is a "Vanya" for those who know "Vanya"; the unfamiliar will find inexplicable holes in the story, such as Helen and Sian's reconciliation, which seems to follow no hostilities to speak of. But Hopkins has proved himself capable, if not virtuosic, in his first outing behind the camera, and who knows? He may be going places.
* MPAA rating: PG, for bloody images of a mining accident, thematic elements and some language. Times guidelines: fine, solid entertainment for the whole family.
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Anthony Hopkins: Ieuan
Kate Burton: Helen
Leslie Phillips: Blathwaite
Gawn Grainger: Dr. Lloyd
Sian: Rhian Morgan
Hugh Lloyd: Prosser
A Granada Film production, released by Samuel Goldwyn. Director Anthony Hopkins. Producers June Wyndham Davies, Pippa Cross. Screenplay by Julian Mitchell. Cinematographer Robin Vidgeon. Editor Edward Mansell. Costumes Danny Everett. Music Anthony Hopkins. Production design Eileen Diss. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes.
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