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Three Sisters
cast: Laurence Olivier, Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi, and Joan Plowright

director: : Laurence Olivier

156 minutes (U) 1970
inD / Fremantle DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Emma French
Superb performances abound in Laurence Olivier's 1970 remake of Anton Chekhov's classic play, which also makes a good attempt to make sense of Chekhov's more elliptical tropes and references. This seemingly effortless translation of Chekhov to screen masks the difficulties of filming the Russian playwright, which have ensured that his work is still a rare material for adaptation in British and American cinema. Moura Budberg deserves credit here for her excellent screenplay of a difficult text. The decision to screen virtually the entire play with very few cuts is a brave one, resulting in a film that comes in at nearly three hours long, but its hypnotic power and the strength of the narrative prevents it from ever becoming dull.

Joan Plowright, instantly recognisable even when she first appears with only her facial profile in silhouette, makes a feisty Masha. Her palpable sense of frustration with her claustrophobic plight and with her family veers between humorous and genuinely tragic. A very young-looking Derek Jacobi is surprisingly well cast as Andrei, and Alan Bates makes a memorable Colonel Vershinin, but Laurence Olivier himself puts in a disappointingly over the top and rather camp performance as Ivan Chebutikin. Louise Purnell is the perfect Irina, however; beautiful, elfin and desperate to grow up and escape her confines.

A sense of the frustrated intellectual capacity of the family is conveyed very powerfully, as is their captivity in the house, with the wind howling hauntingly outside. The house looks grand but perpetually chilly, surrounded by the relentless expanses of birch forest outside a remote Russian town. Evocative lighting and beautiful costumes contribute further to the settings' power. The red-tinged background of the cityscapes, with its deliberate artifice, projects as powerful a sense of another time and place as Olivier's opening sequence at The Globe Theatre in London in his film of Henry V.

This is a heavily stylised film, in which the three sisters are often grouped together in an artistic tableau. Its mood is strongly reminiscent of Roman Polanski's Macbeth. Unfortunately the quality of the sound recording is very poor, at times distractingly so, which can diminish the impact of some of the quieter monologues and musical interludes.

Special DVD features include an extended interview with Alan Bates, an interview with Ely Landau, a stills gallery of monochrome and colour pictures and a poster. There is an American Film Theatre trailer gallery, which features the trailer for Three Sisters as well as trailers for other significant AFT productions including The Iceman Cometh and Rhinoceros. There is also the AFT Cinebill for Three Sisters and a perceptive article, 'Anton Chekhov and Three Sisters' by Michael Feingold, chief theatre critic of The Village Voice.

Many of the special features, for example the interview with Ely Landau and the AFT Cinebill, are text on the screen rather than short films and are very hard to read from any distance, but this is a minor shortcoming. In his interview Alan Bates points out that Chekhov is "notoriously difficult to do on film," but this production appears to have made a fine attempt, and the extras provide useful, if somewhat worthy and sterile, background.
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