Dover Koshashvili's The Duel is a slow burn. He films Anton Chekhov's celebrated short story with such grace that we never notice him ratcheting up the tension.
The Duel follows a conscience-ravaged adulterer named Ivan Laevsky (a pitch-perfect Andrew Scott) as he faces a wholly unexpected choice: whether to make an honest woman out of his newly widowed lover-he's just learned that her husband, who's been away for years, is dead-or to flee to St. Petersburg. If he does the latter, he'll leave behind his illicit relationship, but he'll also leave his lover penniless and stigmatized.
It's exactly the kind of moral problem Chekhov (himself both a Christian and a guilt-wracked "other man") found so compelling, and Koshashvili finds some beautiful ways to dramatize it. Fiona Glascott is remarkable as Nadia, Laevsky's lover. She's a troubled character but not a conscienceless one. As her reputation becomes more public, it becomes more lurid, until one dangerous man becomes convinced that she's a prostitute near the end of the film.
The movie takes its title from the climactic confrontation between Laevsky and Von Koren, a judgmental atheist who detests Laevsky and challenges him out of sheer selfrighteousness. Tobias Menzies, who plays Von Koren, brings a perfect mixture of high-handedness and untried naïveté to the character-maybe the best performance in a very good film.
What will earn the movie an R rating, if it gets wider distribution, is a highly annoying quirk that several other directors of recent period pieces have indulged, and that is its totally superfluous nudity. It's as if Koshashvili discovered a great old story that could benefit from a savvy filmmaker's steady hand and, upon finding that he liked the material, sought a way to keep out those who find nudity objectionable. Why bother to do that to people who seek out period pieces because they're clean? Isn't the joy of Chekhov and Tolstoy and Dickens that everyone can enjoy them? There's no explicit sex in the film, despite its themes, but it's disappointing to have such an otherwise fine movie tarnished for the folks who might enjoy it most.