Home Video Hovel: Three Sisters, by David Bax
Laurence Olivier’s 1970 production of Anthon Chekhov’s Three Sisters is a faithful adaptation, very long and sometimes quite a bit boring. But it’s also about a bunch of people who are miserable living in the country and long to move to the city, so it speaks my language. Most of my fellow city mice will relate to Andrei (Derek Jacobi) when he observes that, in the city, you can go to a restaurant where you don’t know anyone and they don’t know you but you won’t feel alone while, in the country, you know everyone and everyone knows you and yet you feel like you don’t belong. That brief monologue alone saved the movie for me. It doesn’t hurt that it’s delivered by such a great actor. Luckily, all the other dialogue in the movie is delivered by great actors too.
At the center of the story are the sisters in question, Olga (Jeanne Watts), Masha (Joan Plowright) and Irina (Louise Purnell). Along with their older brother, Andrei, Masha’s husband, Kulighin (Kenneth MacKintosh) and servants, including sweet, old Anfissa (Daphne Heard), they live in their country mansion near an army encampment. At the film’s beginning, they are having a birthday party for Irina and have invited local woman Natasha (Sheila Reid), with whom Andrei is smitten, and some of the army officers, including Colonel Vershinin (Alan Bates), Baron Tusenbach (Ronald Pickup), Major Solloni (Frank Wylie), Doctor Chebutikin (Olivier) and others. Over the course of the movie–almost three hours–we will follow this group for the next few years as they woo, marry and betray each other, all while talking about their lives, their futures, all the things they want to do and all the things they will never do.
Olivier’s presentation is intentionally stagey. The establishing shot of the house is a miniature, the interiors are overly roomy and ceilingless and, when we venture outside in the final act, most of the trees are a painted backdrop. Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (Cabaret, 2001: A Space Odyssey) occasionally livens things up with a pan or dolly shot that suddenly resets the proscenium. But most of what we see on screen isn’t much different from what we’d be seeing in a live theater production; and when Olivier does make additions, like a crumby, stock footage-looking shot of a flock of birds, it only serves to break the spell.
Even if some of Olivier’s blocking is corny, like the old trope of two characters having a deep conversation with their backs turned to one another, it’s all enlivened by this terrific cast. Plowright is the true standout, though. In the wrong hands, Masha’s impetuousness could be off-putting. But Plowright fills her with a devilish joie de vivre and makes her the brightest burning thing on the screen, a warm body in Chekhov’s tundra of the soul. Also of particular note is Wylie, who ties the cynical provocateur Solloni back to the “angry young man” wave of British drama in the 50s and 60s. Olivier is, of course, considered one of the greatest actors of all time. Three Sisters reminds us that his legacy should also include his admiration and respect for his peers.
Here I’ll offer a word of warning: The transfer on this disc leaves much to be desired. The picture is soft and the color range seems limited. The biggest problem, though, is the sound. It’s too quiet and muffled, especially for a movie that consists almost entirely of people talking to each other. Also, for what it’s worth, the packaging lists the run time as 192 minutes when it’s actually 162.
Special features include an interview with Bates, an essay by theater critic Michael Feingold and the American Film Theatre cinebill.