VOD film review: Uncle Vanya
James R | On 31, Dec 2020
Director: Ian Rickson
Cast: Toby Jones, Richard Armitage, Aimee Loud Wood
Where to watch Uncle Vanya online in the UK: BBC iPlayer / Apple TV (iTunes) / Google Play / Sky Store
Ennui. This past year has been steeped in it, as the world ground to halt in the face of the coronavirus pandemic – and, even more tortuously, attempted to grind back to normality again. One play that was disrupted was the Harold Pinter Theatre’s production of Uncle Vanya, which opened to rave reviews in January 2020 – and now finds itself reborn in this new normal as a filmed version of the show. It’s a strangely timely, astonishingly resonant piece of work – recorded in an empty theatre but in an atmosphere dripping with ennui.
For all its urgent relevance, Ian Rickson’s incarnation of Chekhov’s play is all the more effective because it doesn’t change the setting at all. We meet Sonya and her Uncle Vanya as their try to maintain their ruined family estate in period Russia. It’s a slow, isolated and resigned existence, only punctuated by the occasional visit of Dr Astrov. That peaceful limbo is shattered when Sonya’s father, Professor Serebryakov, arrived to stay, announcing his plans with his new wife, Yelena, for the future of the estate.
The result is a beautifully bristling family drama, where fractured truths and half-secrets are dragged out into the open – and, in one inspired moment of slapstick, Toby Jones’ Vanya is dragged into a cupboard. His performance is one of the best of his career, presenting us with a crumpled figure who doesn’t know where time has disappeared to. He rues missed opportunities, pines over the downcast Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar), and oscillates between self-pity and desperate hope without ever getting properly dressed. We’ve all been some aspect of his pathetic existence in the past 12 months.
That mournful mood steeps through the set, which is beautifully being infiltrated by overgrowing shoots of nature. But the cast manage to balance that lacklustre poignancy with genuine humour, not least in the juxtaposition between Richard Armitage’s brooding, romantic Dr and Jones’ delusional loner – a love triangle involving Vanya’s youthful niece Sonya (Sex Education’s wonderful Aimee Lou Wood) soon emerges to complicate matters further.
Even with Roger Allam stepping in at the last minute to replace Ciaran Hinds as the Professor, the ensemble work seamlessly together, united in a tale of a family trying, willing itself to go on with the show. The result is a timeless story of frayed human tensions that weaves together environmental concerns and midlife crises with existential dread and, underneath it all, a restless energy that rings all too true.
Uncle Vanya is available on BBC iPlayer until November 2021