While one does not want to destroy the essence of a play, theater and film are different media and require different approaches. With this in mind, Olivier's adaption of Chekov's "Three Sisters" successfully overcomes the problems of filming a play without losing any of the work's
theatrical aspects. The story opens in turn-of-the-century Russia. Three sisters--Watts, Plowright, and Purnell--along with brother Jacobi dream of leaving their small town in the countryside so they might return to the sophisticated atmosphere of their beloved Moscow. During a celebration for
Purnell's patron saint, the siblings are joined in the festivities by Olivier, an aging doctor and longtime friend of the family. Also present are members of the army stationed nearby, including Purnell's would-be suitor, Wylie, and a similarly inclined baron, Pickup. Soon Bates--the new battery
commander--arrives and finally Plowright's husband, Mackintosh. The little party is then joined by Reid, a naive local girl. Two years go by and Reid is now married to Jacobi, a member of the town council and unhappy with his lot. Plowright has fallen in love with Bates despite her own marriage
and his to a sickly woman. Wylie and Pickup still carry a torch for Purnell and express their feelings, though it is apparent she cares little for either man. After a destructive fire, Reid quarrels with her husband's sisters. Life in their little community further breaks down when the respected
Olivier turns up drunk. Watts persuades Purnell finally to marry Pickup, but this decision is made moot when Wylie kills his rival suitor in a duel. Meanwhile, Plowright's life falls apart when the military unit--including Bates--is transferred to another town. She is left to the cold comfort of
her husband, while Watts sums up the trials and tribulations her family has undergone, expressing hope despite the suffering they have all experienced.
Rather than open up the play for a more realistic perspective, Olivier wisely maintains an air of theatricality within the film, using semirealistic settings that would ordinarily only be seen on-stage. Having directed the play at the Old Vic for the National Theatre, Olivier keeps much of what he
did there with his cast, leaving the camera to observe rather than impose itself on the action. While in some cases this technique wears thin, as in the film version of MY FAIR LADY and Volker Schlondorff's television version of "Death of a Salesman," the idea of theater is retained under the
medium of cinema. The cast is clearly familiar with the work and performs Chekov's play with the precision it demands. There is always a certain difficulty in translating works from one language to another, but none of the original rhythms or feelings are lost in this English-language production.
The film fails only where Olivier takes a cinematic diversion from his material in opening scenes of a train, as well as a dream sequence. These moments--which on their own are fine--detract from his intent to present this as a filmed play rather than a motion picture. Olivier made a few changes
in the original cast to make the movie a bigger box-office attraction, most notably the addition of Bates as Vershinin and Olivier himself as the old doctor Chebutikin. Made through the auspices of the American Film Theatre project, this was the first of that series that was independently
produced. THREE SISTERS was originally released in England in 1970 but not until 1974 in the US. It was well worth the wait. Though Chekov has been often imitated (particularly noticeable in Woody Allen's somber film INTERIORS), the drama and imagery he conjures up is unique within the world of
theater. This version of THREE SISTERS, though flawed, is an important rendition of the master playwright's work. While directing the stage version, Olivier let his beard grow for his role in the film. "It saves me an hour in the makeup chair each morning, and I use the time to work out the day's
scenes," he said.
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- Review: While one does not want to destroy the essence of a play, theater and film are different media and require different approaches. With this in mind, Olivier's adaption of Chekov's "Three Sisters" successfully overcomes the problems of filming a play without… (more)