Three Sisters Review

Anton Chekhov’s seminal drama directed by Laurence Olivier in his National Theatre production from 1970, brought to the screen for the American Film Theatre. Noel Megahey reviews the UK Region 0 DVD.

The four plays written by Anton Chekhov just before his death in 1904, The Seagull, Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard, are among the most important and influential works of drama – the rich, complex inner lives of their characters being the perfect conduit for the modern drama techniques of Stanislavsky. Laurence Olivier’s work at the National Theatre in the late sixties wields a similar authority and has made an indelible stamp – for better or worse – on the direction and the stature of British theatre. The American Film Theatre therefore scored quite a coup in capturing the film version of Olivier’s National Theatre stage production of one of the most influential plays in modern drama.

Chekhov’s later dramas, while considerably challenging works for actors and directors, are notoriously difficult to engage an audience. Being unconstrained by dramatic devices and contrivances, the characters merely exist and their natures are gradually revealed, their hopes and illusions, their weaknesses and failings. They are generally the same type of superfluous characters in apparently dreary drawing room dramas – affluent, middle class ladies of leisure, retired doctors and generals and prominent army officials – all of whom are wrapped up in their own interior struggle and none of whom seem to be able to connect with one another. The inability to communicate and connect meaningfully with the other characters is certainly evident in Three Sisters, as are concerns about family, inheritance and one’s duty towards creating a better future. Each of the daughters of the late General Sergeyvich, trapped in the provincial town he was assigned to, struggles with the life they lead and long for something else they are incapable of achieving. Masha (Joan Plowright) is married to Kulighin (Kenneth Mackintosh), but is swept off her feet by the romantic glamour of the new commander Col. Vershinin (Alan Bates) – a glamour that is entirely to do with him being from Moscow, since Vershinin is married to a particularly demanding wife, has two children and is unable to offer Masha the escape she longs for from the interminable boredom of her life in the provinces. Irina (Louise Purnell), the youngest, feels the remoteness from Moscow more acutely than any of the sisters – longing for the glamorous social life of the big city, she will marry the Major, Vassili Vassilich (Frank Wylie), not out of love, but just for the escape to Moscow that he offers. Olga (Jeanne Watts), the eldest, would marry any man who was interested. She is trapped as a spinsterish headmistress in a small provincial town – not a life she would have chosen for herself, but one that has inevitably risen out of her circumstances. Their brother Andrei (Derek Jacobi) is in a similar inescapable situation with his wife Natasha (Shiela Reid), despite her infidelity, he is bound by the love he had for those quirky aspects of her character that once were endearing, but now seem tyrannical.

Little seems to happen in Three Sisters. The characters are bound and restricted by their circumstances and the only development takes place in their expressions of their ideals and illusions, their hopes of a better future and their belief in the power of work to liberate them from the stagnation of their existence – but their inability to break out of their roles and circumstances gives their optimism a particularly gloomy and bitter perspective. Chekhov’s dramas in this way demonstrate the remarkable acuity and insight into the human condition that is also evident in his prose work – which I personally prefer, finding them much wider in scope and colour of characterisation – offering a level of psychological precision that is matched in all of literature only by the best works of Dostoevsky. In the right hands however, Chekhov’s plays can come vividly to life, resonate in meaning through the richness of the characterisation and the shifting textures of their interaction. Many would consider Laurence Olivier’s production captured here on film to be not only a defining representation of Chekhov, but a defining work of theatre, brilliantly preserved on film. It’s not an opinion I would share.

Olivier’s production of Three Sisters, as it is adapted for the American Film Theatre screen, remains resolutely theatrical and stagebound. The unbearably plummy Joan Plowright typifies the theatricality of the performances here. She makes for a dreary Masha, looking thoroughly bored – as indeed her character should be, a young lady who has to “grasp happiness in snatches and little pieces” – but Plowright’s expressions of boredom are of the blank variety, showing no depth or inner life and theatrically over-enunciating her lines. As far as stage acting goes this is great if you like that style of acting (and most of the cast are the same), but on a film screen it looks hammy, far from naturalistic and horribly out of place. Olivier does however open out the drama in places for the screen. The depiction of Irina’s vision of Moscow though feels like a misstep – Moscow should really remain remote and unattainable, so the actual visual depiction of the life Irina dreams about negates this impression. The duel scene at the end of the film however, inserted into the exchange between Irina and Vassili Vassilich, is remarkably effective and is one scene which really draws the subtext and meaning out of the “impressionistic fragmentation” of Chekhov’s dialogue.

The dialogue here is unfortunately stilted. Much as I admire Constance Garnett’s translations of Chekhov’s short stories and novellas, her Victorian translations of the plays are stiff, formal, literal and, according to Vladimir Nabokov in his “Lectures on Russian Literature”, riddled with inaccuracies and misunderstandings of the original texts. There have been some fine re-interpretations of Three Sisters, notably by Irish playwrights Frank McGuinness and by Brian Friel who produced a particularly smooth vernacular adaptation. Friel’s plays show a clear Chekhovian influence, particularly in the likes of Philadelphia, Here I Come and Dancing At Lughnasa, and he has a perfect affinity for the material that is not demonstrated in the rather stilted, laboured Garnett translation which draws out the worst aspects of the Olivier’s National Theatre Actors (with a capital A). Quite how much you will enjoy this particular adaptation of Chekhov will therefore depend on you tolerant you are of Olivier’s Shakespeare adaptations. This is deeply serious drama performed with deep, earnest theatricality.

DVDThe American Film Theatre series was an ambitious attempt in the 1970s to bring drama rarely seen outside a Broadway stage to a wider American public. Each of the fourteen films that were made benefited from some of the finest stage actors and directors of the period, capturing some of remarkable original productions and permanently preserving them for future audiences. Three Sisters follows the AFT DVD releases of The Homecoming, Butley, A Delicate Balance and The Man In The Glass Booth, Rhinoceros, The Iceman Cometh and The Maids, Galileo, In Celebration, Philadelphia, Here I Come, Luther, Lost In The Stars and Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris as part of the complete set of all fourteen titles in the American Film Theatre Collection. Each of the releases contains a substantial number of relevant and high quality extra features. All the DVDs are region-free.

VideoMade in 1970, Three Sisters is the oldest of the films in the American Film Theatre series, but the image still really ought to look better than it does here. The picture is very soft, grainy and lacking in detail. Colours are dull, faded and washed-out looking, the colours on one or two occasions showing some very obvious fluctuation. Blacks are mostly dull, but not completely devoid of detail and figures do at least stand out relatively well from darker backgrounds. Digital artefacts, which plague most of the AFT releases, are also evident here. The image isn’t a total disaster, and there are few marks or scratches on the print, but it is certainly below average quality.

AudioThe audio track is also very poor. The mono soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. It’s dull, flat and has a high level of background noise, hiss and crackle. Mostly the dialogue is relatively clear, since the music score is not dominant and there are no real sound effects competing for space – but occasionally in one or two scenes the hiss reaches levels that threaten to overwhelm the dialogue.

SubtitlesThere are no hard of hearing subtitles on the feature or on the extra material. Again, this is an unfortunate omission for such material.

ExtrasExtended Interview with Alan Bates (40:04)An extended version of the interview with Alan Bates that appeared on the Butley DVD, this version includes Bates’ thoughts on his character and working with Olivier and the National Theatre on Three Sisters. Not a member of the company, Bates replaced Robert Stevens, who was ill, for some of the production’s tour and for the film. The interview also covers the late actor’s work on Butley and compares the experience of working with Harold Pinter to another film he worked on in the series, In Celebration with Lindsay Anderson.

Interview with Ely LandauA text interview with the director of the AFT series, this is an interesting look back over the first season films, measuring their successes and failures and looking ahead to the features in the second season.

AFT Trailer Gallery Trailers are included for Three Sisters (2:41), Rhinoceros (1:50), The Iceman Cometh (2:37), A Delicate Balance (3:19), The Homecoming (2:29) and Butley (2:53).

AFT Cinebill for Three SistersThe cinebill or programme notes contains four articles. The creation of the play is followed from Chekhov’s letters in ‘A Play Is Born’. In ‘Laurence Olivier – A. Chekhov and W. Shakespeare’ the director provides a thoughtful look at Three Sisters’ place among Chekhov’s last four plays, and how he approached it in comparison to his Shakespeare films. ‘Guthrie McClintic – A Memorable Three Sisters’ descrbes a 1942 production of the play in a letter, while ‘Eva Le Gallienne – A Great Actor Pays Tribute To Chekhov’ remembers the first 1926 English production in the United States.

Article“Anton Chekhov and Three Sisters” by Michael Feingold, the Chief Theatre Critic for the Village Voice, covers the life of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), the development of his dramatic works, their influence on Russian and world drama and a deeper look at Three Sisters and its notable productions.

OverallIt’s hard to argue against either the reputations of Chekhov or Olivier and I imagine most people who enjoy serious drama will find Three Sisters one of the highlights of the whole series of American Film Theatre films. Personally, I don’t like Olivier’s style here and feel that – unlike some of the other productions which have successfully been transplanted from the stage to screen – its straight, stiff, theatrical presentation on film works against the inner life and profound natural humanism that lies within the heart of the play. The fact that this exists on film however is a marvellous document of Olivier’s theatre work and it is certainly fascinating to examine from that point of view. While the DVD presentation is unfortunately lacking, it is never enough to make the film unwatchable and the extra features are in-depth and worthwhile.


Updated: Mar 25, 2005

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
Three Sisters Review | The Digital Fix