The American Film Theatre was a concept started back in the seventies to bring the best stage plays to people that could not travel to the big city theatres to see known works. Basically, each movie is a filmed play, and this version of 'The Three Sisters' from Anton Chekhov was directed by Laurence Olivier and performed by the National Theatre of Britain. The titular three sisters live in a small garrison town in Russia at the turn of the 19th Century. They live with their brother, Andrei in an upper class household. They are all unhappy with their lives and yearn for change, primarily a move to Moscow, their city of dreams, where they believe all their hopes and aspirations will be realised. But Andrei marries a local girl, and she gradually takes over the Prozorov house and the sisters' illusory hopes crumble away.
The play, 'The Three Sisters' is a study of the affairs and interactions of the main three women - Irina, Olga and Masha (respectively archetypically naive, homely, and sensual), and the elusiveness of finding fulfilment in life. In many ways, this film is as close to watching a real play onscreen as you can get, although obviously you would only have one view in a theatre, not the many angles you get in a film. Since this story is being told through a theatrical performance the acting is more overblown than you would expect in a traditional movie. It feels a bit hammy and over the top at first, but once you get used to the actors 'projecting', the acting turns out to be quite superb, especially by Joan Plowright, Jeanne Watts, and Louise Purnell, who flesh out the conflicting characteristics and temperaments of each sister very well. Alan Bates and Derek Jacobi also excel in supporting roles, and Laurence Olivier is very amusing playing an army officer drunkard.
Olivier directs the film with aplomb, bringing a cinematic flourish to the play without robbing it of it's original atmosphere. He films the actors mainly in wide shots and medium shots again in keeping with the look of a play, using close-ups sparingly so that they really count when it matters. The photography and set design is simple yet elegant, with the set of the house having the faded beauty of an old mansion and the woods outside (filmed indoors) looking quite ethereal.
The story itself meanders somewhat with a lot of the plot happening offstage, and the characters reacting to events rather than instigating them. Everything has a random, disconnected feeling. The experience of watching a play in the flesh is hard to emulate but this film succeeds. And this is both the film's main strength and weakness. Using too many filmmaking tricks would spoil the feeling of watching a play, making it simply a film adaption, yet without judicious editing and stylish visuals the end result can be flaccid. Olivier directs well, straddling a fine line, but the film clocks in at over two and a half hours, and because of the slow pace and leisurely editing it does drag at times. All in all, this is a faithful rendition of the Chekhov play, quite bittersweet and moving, but the all-star cast is what really makes the film enjoyable (even if your bum is numb at the end of it).
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