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Translating a Masterpiece

Charlotte Rampling's performance fleshes out a Chekhov classic.


When you're reading Chekhov, author-illustrator Edward Gorey once said, you wonder why you read anyone else. Michael Cacoyannis' new film of the great Russian writer's final masterpiece, "The Cherry Orchard," illustrates what Gorey was talking about.

Something of a one-man band (writer, director, producer, co-editor), Cacoyannis is best known for the 1963 film "Zorba the Greek" as well as his passionate restagings of the Euripides trio of "Electra," "Iphigenia" and "The Trojan Women." He wrote the "Cherry Orchard" script from his own English-language translation, and though it is overly broad at times, leading to the inevitable overplaying by some of the minor characters, these are small defects compared with the production's virtues.

Heading that list is an exquisite performance by Charlotte Rampling, whose work as Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya, the matriarch of the great estate the cherry orchard sits on, is the film's dazzling centerpiece.

With this role following her much applauded appearance in Francois Ozon's "Under the Sand," Rampling, after more than 35 years in the business, is clearly at the peak of her powers.

Los Angeles Times Saturday April 6, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Release date--A reference to "Zorba the Greek" in a review of the film "The Cherry Orchard" in Friday's Calendar listed the wrong year for its release. It came out in 1964.

Cacoyannis, as is his tendency, has made it his business to enthusiastically open up a play that takes place largely inside the four walls of the Ranevskaya manor house. Working with cinematographer Aris Stavrou and production designer Dionysis Fotopoulos, Cacoyannis makes this turn-of-the-century world come to life, a process aided by his deft use of the piano music of Tchaikovsky played by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

One immediate difference from the play is that this "Cherry Orchard" starts well outside Russia proper, in the France where Lyubov has exiled herself for five years after the accidental death of her son. Her living situation has become so precarious that her 17-year-old daughter Anya (Tushka Bergen) comes to Paris with her governess to bring her home.

Back at the estate, everyone is in a tizzy about their mistress' return. This group includes her feckless brother Gaev (Alan Bates), interested only in working out difficult billiard shots; his ancient servant Feers (Michael Gough, previously seen as Bruce Wayne's butler in the "Batman" movies); the idealistic former tutor and perennial student Trofimov (Andrew Howard); and Lyubov's adopted daughter Varya (Katrin Cartlidge at her best), who functions as a kind of overseer in her mother's absence.

Having easily the most serious business with the mistress is Lopakhin (Owen Teale), a former peasant who has grown into a savvy and successful businessman. He reminds Lyubov and her brother that the estate will be sold for back taxes unless they take drastic action. He has a plan, which includes cutting down the orchard and constructing summer villas, but the two won't hear of it.

"Never have I met people as irresponsible, impractical and irrational," Lopakhin complains. "You must face facts." Facing facts, however, is the one thing these people have been raised not to do.

Shot in Bulgaria, Cacoyannis' "Cherry Orchard" excels at making the Ranevskaya estate feel especially authentic. The family orchard, celebrated across the province for its size and beauty, has never looked so out-and-out gorgeous, and the manor house, an impressive ruin that is grand but quasi-dilapidated, is equally memorable.

Because the film takes care to show us peasants still in quasi-religious awe of the mistress 40 years after emancipation of the serfs, this "Cherry Orchard" more than most gives us a sense of why the family was so disconnected from reality, why they felt their world and way of life could not possibly come to an end.

Looking aristocratic, luminous yet careworn in Jane Hamilton's exemplary costumes, Rampling gives a performance that could not be improved upon as the gracious and genteel mistress of the estate, oblivious, irresponsible yet deeply emotional, an aesthete to her core. Lyubov's grace, bearing and refusal to believe what is happening to her is central to Chekhov's sympathetic yet unblinking view of a world that is soon to be no more.

Finally, inevitably, it is Chekhov's brilliance we are saluting here, his sure sense of a society coming apart from inside ("When several cures are presented for the same disease," says Bates' Gaev, "it means it's incurable") and his way of allowing all manner of significant issues to emerge naturally from his wonderful characters.

For if we disregard the occasionally overdone script and the actors who hit things too hard, we are left as always with Chekhov's effortless humanity, the sheer psychological acuity he brought to the loves, hopes and inchoate longings of his characters. It was the director Stanislavsky, who famously argued with Chekhov about the staging of "The Cherry Orchard" for its 1904 premiere, who summed him up: "It was only that he looked at the present without falsifying it. He was not afraid of the truth."


No MPAA rating. Times guidelines: adult themes.

'The Cherry Orchard'

Charlotte Rampling...Lyubov Andreyevna

Alan Bates...Gaev

Katrin Cartlidge...Varya

Owen Teale...Lopakhin

Tushka Bergen...Anya

Xander Berkeley...Epihodov

Andrew Howard...Trofimov

A Melanda Film Productions, Amanda Productions, Films De L'Astre production, released by Kino International. Director Michael Cacoyannis. Producer Michael Cacoyannis. Executive producers Yannoulla Wakefield, Alexander Metodiev. Screenplay Michael Cacoyannis, from the play by Anton Chekhov. Cinematographer Aris Stavrou. Editor Michael Cacoyannis, Takis Hadzis. Costumes Jane Hamilton. Music Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Production design Dionysis Fotopoulos. Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes.

In limited release.

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