It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
A tale of honor, revenge and violence in Czarist Russia, the IMAX-shot “The Duelist” is a spectacular, impressively realized period drama that’s notable not only for the talents of writer-director Aleksey Mizgirev but also the sponsorship of producer Alexander Rodnyansky. The latter may be the most ambitious and savvy of current Russian producers, having shepherded Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan” to international success and an Oscar nomination two years ago. With “The Duelist,” Rodnyansky is taking a more commercial turn, one that depends less on art-house refinements than on plush production values, action-movie tropes and a couple of stellar lead performances.
Set in St. Petersburg in 1860, the film may look at first like a Masterpiece Theatre-style trip back to the gorgeous wardrobes and polite manners of centuries past, but this is by no means the Russian equivalent of a Jane Austen adaptation. As it unfolds, Mizgirev’s story reveals some of the entrancing complexities and astonishing twists of 19th century novels. But one is less likely to be reminded of Dostoyevsky or Turgenev than of, say, Alexandre Dumas. Throw in a bit of Quentin Tarantino and Sergio Leone and you’ve got a cinematic package that’s far more appropriately brutal than genteel.
It’s interesting to contemplate the film’s appeal to contemporary Russian audiences since it leapfrogs over the Communist era to evoke a time when the country was ruled by a proud and wealthy aristocracy. Distinctions of class, in fact, are paramount in this tale, which is solely concerned with the prerogatives of the nobility.
Among those, we learn as the film begins, are the rules governing dueling, the standard means for an offended noble to defend his honor. The code lays down an intricate array of rituals and restrictions, but allows that one party may sometimes be replaced by another nobleman. Thus do we enter the story of one Yakovlev (Pyotr Fyodorov), a professional duel fighter. When we first see him, Yakovlev is facing off against another man in an elegant room, accompanied by their seconds and those conducting the duel. Yakovlev apparently has nerves of steel: After the two men choose pistols, he offers his temple to his opponent. The man pulls the trigger and his gun doesn’t fire. Yakovlev then raises his pistol to the man’s forehead, fires and puts a bullet through his head.