Uncle Vanya at the cinema

This afternoon Mr Esther and I drove for an hour to the university town of Wageningen to see the filmed version of the Uncle Vanya stage play that I had seen live at the Harold Pinter theatre in London back in February. It was a bit of a weird experience. We parked, walked to the arthouse cinema that was showing the film, went straight in wearing our masks, took them off while we sat, saw the film and then immediately afterwards it was off home again.

No exploring around town where almost everything was closed, no drinks in a café beforehand, no sitting down at a restaurant for dinner afterwards, no socializing and maybe finding other Richard Armitage fangirls before or after the screening; we just drove in, saw the film and drove home again, like checking off a matter of business on a to do list. None of the joys surrounding such an event for a day out were to be had due to the semi lockdown Corona measures in The Netherlands. Yes, that felt weird but it was maybe also very fitting for the mood the play had left us in.

The cinema version of Uncle Vanya incorporated the empty Harold Pinter theatre at the beginning and the end of the play, which felt sad and almost a little eery. Due to the camera being right in there on stage and the very many close ups (be still my beating heart every time the camera was all zoomed in on Richard Armitage!) this felt even more initmate than it had felt back in February on stage in that relatively small theatre. The soliloquys directed in part straight to camera also gave it an initmate feel, it was as if the viewer was right there on the stage as well.

As I had seen the play before, I was curious to see what Mr Esther’s reaction would be to the play. He was struck by the desperation of the characters and how little change was possible for them but also by the references to climate change and how modern that seemed, along with how topical the references to a pandemic were. When the play was in the third act and it was mentioned that they were in September now and everything just seemed the same, day in and day out, Mr Esther turned to me and whispered, “This sounds just like 2020!”

As we discussed the characters afterwards, I realized that this time around I felt more empathy for Richard’s Dr. Astrov than I had back in February. His mention of coming through a pandemic, and how experiencing the death of a boy patient had finally broken him, just hit home more now than ever, now that we are also in a pandemic and we hear the harrowing stories of health care workers in hospitals. He also seemed less negatively pushy with Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar) than I had remembered and the scene when he talks with her and flirts with her over the maps is just so good, with all the underlying tensions and emotions on display.

With Sonya (Aimee Lou Wood), where in February his leading her on elicited gasps of frustration in the audience, this time around the reaction was not quite as strong, you just realized he could not give that kind of love to that young woman. Mr Esther admitted to even being glad those two didn’t end up together.

Also, his scenes with Vanya (Toby Jones), drunk or otherwise, were mesmerizing to watch.

Toby Jones as Vanya was just as heartbreaking and disappointed as I had remembered him and just as funny too. However, to me in this filmed version, his connection with Yelena was less close than it had seemed on stage in February. His desperation for her was still there but she seemed to reciprocate less than I remembered.

With all the actors, and most notably for me with Nana (Anna Calder-Marshall) and Yelena, the emotions were far more there and well visible in the close ups. Especially Yelena was stronger here than I had remembered her on stage, more emotional and desperate than I remembered, yet just as much a fish out of water as she had been then. Mr Esther mentioned how he found it hardest to connect with her because we somehow get to know too little of her back story. Yet, her feeling trapped came across stronger than ever to me.

As for Sonya, I found her in general less patronizing than I had found her to sometimes be when I saw her live on stage and her monologue at the end was just as touching as I had found it live. The Professor (Roger Allam) was just as narcissistic and too self-obsessed to really care about the people’s lives around him, which somehow reminded me of certain world leaders. I could so identify with Uncle Vanya’s frustration with the Professor.

Mr Esther was most impressed by Toby Jones (he loves how expressive Jones is) and Richard Armitage in this. No, he did not say that just to please me. So, as a fangirl, it’s extra nice to hear such praise from a non-fangirl (or -boy) for my main actor squeeze. In the end, after all the desperation and midlife crisis elements in the story, he found that the most realistic and hopeful one of them all was also the youngest of them all, Sonya. We left the movie theatre feeling a little otherworldly and yet some of it had also felt so familiar.

We had some time to discuss all this on our hour long drive home and Mr Esther and I were very glad we had shared this experience with each other. We ordered sushi from the car which was delivered ten minutes after we arrived home…

We now move on back to real life, stuck at home again during this pandemic. Just as the Uncle Vanya characters, we are also not able to change much in our lives right now with the restrictions around us that are there to protect us all. To quote Sonya at the end of the play:

What can we do? We must live out our lives. Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We shall live all through the endless procession of days ahead of us, and through the long evenings. We shall bear patiently the burdens that fate imposes on us. We shall work without rest for others, both now and when we are old.

And in the end we shall hope for the best.

30 thoughts on “Uncle Vanya at the cinema

  1. Esther so glad you and hubby were able to see the film version! I liked Sonya both times we saw it. I was telling Rachel just today that sitting four rows from the stage my entire attention was on Richard he has such a stage aura about him. Toby Jones does too and that on Wed night sitting in the tenth row I got a different perspective on it and saw much more the interaction of all the cast.
    Thus review was marvelous and the parallels to 2020 are certainly spot on! 👍❤️

    Liked by 2 people

          1. Esther I treasure the stage experience and SD in February. I do wish at some point maybe in a streaming service I can view Uncle Vanya film version but I’m so happy you and hubby got to view it
            Movie date night 2.0❤️😀

            Liked by 1 person

  2. aradaghast

    🙂 J’attendais cet article avec impatience.
    Merci pour votre analyse, elle me replonge dans une période plus insouciante.
    En février, à Londres, chaque soir, le spectacle était différent. Mais ici, à jamais, ce film fixe une version définitive de cette pièce. De plus, cette version est celle qui est ancrée, marquée par la période de pandémie.
    J’aimerais quelle puisse être largement diffusée, pour un plus grand public et dans un contexte plus apaisé.
    Puisse ce weekend de sortie, vous permette de passer une “Bonne Semaine”.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. i was thinking that about how this is a ‘definitive’ version. Having seen it 3 times there were some significant differences i saw-particularly the relationship between Astrov and Yelena. One night she seemed to find him tiresome, another night she seemed much happier with his attention.
      Almost seems a shame that Yelena and Vanyas relationship was more strained, on stage she seemed torn between enjoying his company and being frustrated that he wants more from her
      Certainly interesting the change in reaction to Astrov and Sonya and the relief that she almost was luckier not to end up with him.
      Thanks for your insight Esther

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Yes, this time around to me it seemed like Yelena was somewhere between welcoming Vanya’s attention and finding him tiresome. I also found her to be a little more receptive of Astrov than I remembered her to be in February. I enjoy the different nuances and I think the pandemic must have informed not only their performances but my perception of it as well.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Glad you made it to the cinema too, Esther, and good you both enjoyed it! It’s not a different play on the screen but there’s definitely another view to the nuances of the characters which is absolutely worth it! Good they decided to film the play!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Servetus

    Interesting. I guess we’ll see what happens after the BBC shows it. In general, the character I identified with most was Yelena (so honest, and so trapped — when I was watching the play performances my impression was that Vanya was just another problem she had to deal with, only slightly more amusing than the other ones) and I could not stand Sofia. I dislike how the play ends (and in general I find it’s hard to end an art work — there are plenty of things I have loved where I now just switch off before the ending), and I suspect I will dislike it more if what you say here is true. I fundamentally disagree with the sentiment expressed, to put it in the mouth of a late adolescent is galling, and hearing it in Aimee Lou Wood’s mouth was another order of magnitude of aggravation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, you really didn’t like her, did you? I thought she was alright even if a bit naïve and simple. I don’t think I could really love any one of the characters but I could identify with bits and pieces of many of them.


      1. Servetus

        I don’t think the characters were supposed to be lovable, or at least that wasn’t Chekhov’s first goal. He was a literary realist (maybe *the* Russian exemplar of the tendency) and was trying to provide above all a description of the social segments he was portraying. Works like this basically make plot secondary to the picture of society they are drawing, and the goal (as in his associations to the Stanislavski “method”) is a truthful reproduction. So when Sofia gives her closing speech, on a basic level that is supposed to give us a picture not only of an individual person within a particular sequence of events, but of a type of a person one could find in that setting. I don’t question whether that is true so much as I find it really alienating. I mean, one person can be naive, but there are (and were) political consequences to attitudes like that. She’s not the only culpable person in this play — they all are, including Yelena (although people seize on her responsibility because she appears to be the most “spoiled” in some ways) — but she’s part of the picture.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh, I agree that none of the characters are particularly lovable, Mr Esther and I were commenting on that as well on our drive home. They all have some good qualities and flaws, just like real people do. And the society portrayed is quite depressing which makes the messsage of just sucking it up and bearing it also depressing. Yes, sometimes you just need to ride someting out and sometimes you don’t.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Servetus

            I usually tell my students that a violent / extreme Russian Revolution is more or less in the cards after the assassination of Alexander II (1881), and this play (twenty years later) gives a really great picture of some of the reasons for that. Sonia means well but she’s just propping up a decrepit, unjust system.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. I am glad you managed to see Uncle Vanya – The Movie, Esther and it is interesting to hear your observations. Mr E was quite right in comparing our endless pandemic days with their estate, that hadn’t occurred to me. The film brought an added dimension with the close-ups (RA’s in particular!) and reactions of the characters but I could do without Aimee Lou Wood’s constant nodding, which was more apparent.

    Liked by 1 person

        1. Yeah, that aspect was heartwrenching, I agree. I guess the things you grapple with personally are what colours your perception of this play most. For one it’s the feeling trapped aspect of Yelena, for the other it’s the unrequited love. For me it’s Astrov’s desire to do good but feeling paralyzed and not being able to deliver that which resonated strongest.


          1. Esther I get Astrovs anguish Im not entirely unsympathetic to him but Vanya resonated more with me and Yelena I couldn’t relate to at all. She had these men clamoring after her and all that attention whereas loyal Sonja sits there really with all the grace and dignity imo

            Liked by 1 person

            1. They are all trapped, really. For all the attention she gets because of her superficial beauty, Yelena is trapped in a social position and can’t find a way to be more than just a pretty face, which is quite terrible. I think the only one who does ‘see’ her is Vanya, but he even he has an idealized image of her. Even pretty girls with lots of attention have real problems. To continue with the trapped theme: Astrov is trapped and paralyzed by harrowing memories and Vanya is trapped into certain responsibilities that are impossible to break free from. For Sonya, I think she is very much trapped in an unrealistic illusion, a hero-worship for a man with potential but he isn’t quite who she thinks he is and who really isn’t right for her at all.
              To summarize, they are all basically quite sad… 😉

              Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Goodbye 2020 – The Book of Esther

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