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The Cherry Orchard

Starring Charlotte Rampling; Alan Bates, Katrin Cartlidge, Michael Gough
Based on the play by Anton Chekhov
Written and Directed by Michael Cacoyannis
no website

IN SHORT: Dreadful. [Not Rated. 137 minutes]

Once upon a time we worked on the film of The Fantasticks, which was reviewed in these pages and ran for one week in New York and Los Angeles because the studio had no faith in the finished product and was required to put the film in a theater before it could release a video. That's how this business works, sometimes. Other times there are projects that, once they finish production and editing, are immediately put on a shelf. Movies are very expensive to produce so there's a lot of incentive to get 'em off the shelf, if only to make up the back end on video. Now you can have the opportunity to see one of the true examples of something that should never have come off the shelf.

Based upon the play by Anton Chekhov as adapted by director Michael Cacoyannis, The Cherry Orchard is the story of Russian noblewoman Lyobov Andreyevna Ranevskaya (Charlotte Rampling). Lady Ranevskaya lavished most of her fortune on a Parisian ne'er-do-well who then dumped her for a younger woman. In the company of her daughter Anya (Tushka Bergen) and a governess who exhibits extreme devotion to her dog and a monkey doll, the lady returns to the family estate, itself saddled under the weight of an immense mortgage. There, she and her brother (Alan Bates) are advised by a prosperous merchant/ speculator (Owen Teale) that they can make big rubles if they cut down a cherry orchard on their property and build rental vacation houses. Rather than take the advice of a former serf -- they once owned his family, for Tsar's sake! -- they waste the summer away. Lyobov has two daughters, one of whom has caught the eye of that merchant. He's too shy, and perhaps class conscious, to do anything about it and she can't because women in the nineteenth century didn't do that sort of thing.

We've mentioned in a past review or two our former career as a sound recordist. It's sometimes a curse to bear when reviewing films because we can hear a majority of what are called "dubs," usually dialog that wasn't recorded clearly during production. If a production has enough money left over after principal shooting has finished, the actors are called back into a recording studio and re-record an occasional line. Sometimes it's just an individual word. The alternative, "seen" again and again in low budget indie productions, is that a cheap recordist is hired and all the sound is "fixed" in post. Finally, sometimes, the production recording was just abominable. We can hear all of this, and now you can too. Lousy recording is a mere stepping off point for this utterly awful production. Watch carefully and portions of the film look like a badly dubbed Japanese flick. Lips move out of synch with the words that are emitted. The expressions on the faces don't jibe with the emotive qualities of the speech. This production is filled to overflowing with dubbed sound effects that don't match or overwhelm the visuals. And it gets worse.

Director Cacoyannis has spent most of the last twenty years of his career creating adaptations for the stage. His movie credits are substantial, sixty years as a director with a fistful of Oscar nominations (both in his native language and for Zorba) dating back to the nineteen sixties. The problem, from our view, is that Cacoyannis has written, and then filmed, a stage play. Ninety percent of the scenes conclude as they would if they had been staged. The performances are overwrought, as if the characters were standing on a theater stage, emoting to reach the back of the orchestra. Their physical movements are exaggerated, again, as if they were performing on a stage. While the film's score is taken from the works of the up and coming composer P.I. Tchaikovsky <g> its use intrudes on the quiet scenes and doesn't support or enhance the segments that are supposed to have more emotional clout.

The Cherry Orchard had the critic next to me curled up in a fetal position, trying to sleep. A second writer, one row down, stepped out of the screening room at least three times, apparently grabbing a Camel Light or two each time out. Only those who knew the Chekhov original were enjoying any aspect of this production. The trouble with that, as all longtime readers of this site know is that Rule One of CrankyCritic.com is that you shouldn't have to know the source to enjoy the movie. If you don't know the source, heck, even if you do (but just), The Cherry Orchard is a ponderous, plodding film. It is filled with characters who may have been significant to the play yet contribute little to the film's story -- specifically, the governess has had no kidlet to watch over in years. Nor does it provide any kind of background about the Russia of 1900 that would help define class parameters that the characters abide by -- there's a subsidiary character, an "eternal student" better defined as a young Marxist in the making. That, too, is something you'd need a bit of history to pick up on.

We're of Russian descent so we had a leg up but these elements could have contributed mightily to events in the story, but failed to deliver any punch.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Nine Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Cherry Orchard, he would have paid . . .

$1.00

"The only way to atone for the past is by suffering," says one character. Watch carefully. Suffer you will.

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