An Uncle Vanya set on a sheep station in Australia? Surely some mistake. But, in the hands of Michael Blakemore, the play as film makes sense both in and out of the setting. Country Life, “suggested by Uncle Vanya”, would not have Chekhov swivelling wrathfully in his grave.
The period is just after the first world war and the quiet desperation of the inhabitants of an old house near Canterbury is made more palpable by the introduction of Alexander (Blakemore himself), who had left for London 22 years ago to make his name as a theatre critic, has been rudely sacked and now returns with his beautiful but unsettled wife (Greta Scacchi). He is full of pompous platitudes and hypochondriac uncertainties.
His brother-in-law Jack drinks too much but is sober enough to recognise that Alexander’s wife is not exactly glowing with sated desire. He wants her for himself, as does the local doctor (Sam Neill), a liberal who believes in progressive farming and Aboriginal rights.
To add to these complications, Jack’s daughter (Kerry Fox) also has the hots for the good doctor, who hardly notices her. An emotional explosion soon occurs, relieved only when Alexander decides to sell the house and leave. The film, like Uncle Vanya, has universal theses, but Blakemore attempts to be more specific about colonial relationships. It’s the kind of piece that relies first and foremost on atmosphere and performances.
If the film doesn’t quite make it on all levels, it has distinctly more depth than John Duigan’s pleasant but lightweight Sirens, although less panache and dramatic grip than Jane Campion’s The Piano.
What one can certainly say about it is that, even if Chekhov is totally cast aside, Country Life remains watchable in its own right. It’s a period piece that isn’t concerned so much about being elegant and nostalgic as being reasonably truthful to its time.