Anton Chekhov must have had a wonderful sense of humor, or perhaps it is Michael Blakemore’s reworking of the story which makes this film so enjoyable. Chekhov’s subtitle for “Uncle Vanya” was “Scenes from Country Life,” which is how this screen version happened to be called “Country Life.” Chekhov wrote his play in 1897 with its setting in Russia, of course. Michael Blakemore who, by the way, plays the part of Alex Voysey, places his characters in Australia in 1919. It is summer in Australia; that is, it is February down under, and the characters complain about the summer heat.
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Sam Neill - Wikimedia
Long-suffering Jack Dickens (John Hargreaves) had been caring for the family farm for decades since the death of his father. He lived there with his elderly mother Maud and his niece Sally Voysey (Kerry Fox) whose widowed father Alex escaped the rigors of farm life to become a drama critic in London. Alex was married to Jack’s sister before she passed away, which is his connection to the family. Alex, at 62 years of age, has allowed the family to believe that he is successful and wealthy in his career, although he lives well on his share of the farm’s profits which Uncle Jack sends to him faithfully each month.
Other Members of the Household
Another member of the household is Wally Wells (Ron Blanchard), a friend of Uncle Jack’s, whose wife left him to marry her dentist. Jack invited him to live at the farm where Wally helps out by picking up their mail in town twice a week, and picking up the food and supplies that are needed for the household. He works two days a week at the post office in town. Wally is pleasant to everyone and plays the harmonica for his and everyone else’s enjoyment.
Their family doctor, Dr. Max Askey (Sam Neill) spends a lot of time at the farm taking care of the family and their servants, and even takes time to look after the health of the farm animals. Dr. Askey seems to have a drinking problem but it does not interfere with his work. Young Sally, who is probably in her early twenties, has had a crush on Dr. Askey for the past six years. He has no idea of his effect on her.
All of these household members are well looked after by the help - the elderly Hannah, her young helper Vi, and the maintenance man Fred.
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Greta Scacchi - Wikimedia
Alex and His New Wife are Coming
The family has received word that Alex will be coming back to the farm with his new young wife Deborah (Greta Scacchi) and would like to be met at the train station. The couple arrived with perhaps fifteen pieces of luggage. Dr. Askey has arranged to have some additional carriages on hand to bring the luggage to the farm.
The pompous Alex announced that he had brought a gift for the family, several cases of London’s best wines. They were late getting in and missed the lunch that Hannah had prepared, but were able to appease their hunger when tea was served later in the day. Hannah informed them that lunch would not go to waste since they would be served that food for their dinner that evening.
Alex Lays Down the Law
Alex was not happy with the early dinner hour of seven o’clock, and suggested that dinner should now be served at 8:00 or even 8:30 o’clock, even though the later hour did not fit the farm schedule which had everyone up very early in the morning. Also, Alex asked to have tea served in his room since he had a nasal condition and needed to rest after taking his drops. His large medicine kit was missing, but Vi was able to find it among their baggage that was dropped off in the vestibule.
Alex also announced that his wife Deborah would need a bedroom separate from his since he often worked late and did not want to disturb his wife. Sally offered her own bedroom across the hall for Deborah; she would take another down the corridor.
The beautiful Deborah did not seem to fit in well with the others nor with the farm activities which were so different from the London social scene to which she was accustomed. Sally suggested that she might look into a teaching position that was open in the town, but Deborah was not interested. Plus, she needed to be at Alex’s beck and call most of the time.
Too Much Wine for Everybody
The wine was brought out for dinner, and the entire household, including Hannah, Vi, and Fred, were able to partake of the generous gift. Somehow, several bottles went missing. However, they were able to hear Fred serenading the animals out in the garden, and concluded that the missing bottles had been found.
Alex quietly asked Uncle Jack one day if Wally paid rent to stay at the farm. Jack was incensed at the question. No, Wally did not pay rent, but he was a great asset to the farm, and they probably could not do without his services.
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Kerry Fox - Wikimedia
Deborah and Dr. Askey Become Friends
At an outdoor picnic the next day, Deborah suggested a walk around the grounds. Since Alex was not in condition for the task, Dr. Askey offered to accompany her around the property. At one point, Deborah realized there was a pebble in her shoe, and Dr. Askey helped to take her shoe off and remove the pebble. It seemed to be an intimate, but awkward, moment. They resumed their walk and Dr. Askey stopped dead in his tracks and looked through his binoculars to something in the distance. Deborah asked to see what it was, and the viewer shared the scene that Deborah zeroed in on - it was two kangaroos having sex. When they returned to the house for dinner, Maud asked them if they had seen the darling kangaroos hopping around. They said yes, they saw them hopping around.
Sally and Deborah Become Friends
Sally had not warmed up to Deborah, who was actually her stepmother, and asked if they could be friends. The wine came out again, and the two ladies drank to their friendship. Sally confided in Deborah that she had loved Dr. Askey for six years. Deborah agreed to casually find out if there was a chance that Dr. Askey might reciprocate her feelings. In the conversation, Sally asked Deborah if she was happy and Deborah said “No.” They both laughed. Then Deborah explained that she had been very much in love at one time, and her fiancé was killed in the war. When she met Alex, he was kind to her and she felt safe with him.
Alex Oversteps His Bounds
Meanwhile, Alex, in his private room, rang very late in the evening for one of the ladies to come to his room. When young and pretty Vi showed up, Alex made some inappropriate overtures to her which made Vi extremely uncomfortable. As she left, Alex said “That will be our little secret.” A few days later, Hannah conveyed to Alex that from now on, she, Hannah, would answer any of his late night calls.
Uncle Jack and Dr. Askey Vie for Deborah’s Attention
Even Uncle Jack was smitten with Deborah. He was not used to the strong drink that was so easily available in the house now, and told Deborah that he cared for her a great deal. Deborah was able to let him down politely. She had a job to do. She had to speak privately to Dr. Askey. He was in the stable where some new kittens had just been born. She told him gently that Sally was fond of him and wondered if possibly he returned her affection. His answer was “No.” For the first time, they were in a situation where no one could see or hear them. They kissed each other passionately.
Alex had a huge announcement to make to the entire household. He had been in contact with someone who was interested in purchasing the farm, the house and all of the animals for a very good price. He said they could buy a less expensive house and still have money left over to provide them all with a good living. Uncle Jack was devastated at the announcement. He had given his whole life to the farm, to allow Alex to go off to London to socialize with the upper classes. He could not agree with Alex’s plan. He went to his room and came back with a shotgun and shot Alex. Fortunately, he missed. He slipped away from the others and could not be found, until Sally spotted him up in the tree house. He had taken some strong medicine from Dr. Askey’s bag, and was contemplating killing himself. Sally was able to talk him down from the tree house.
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Alex Has Worn Out His Welcome
Alex was forced to give up his plan. Not only that, he and Deborah no longer felt comfortable at the farm. He contacted a relative in Perth who wanted Alex and Deborah to live with them. They said their goodbyes. Deborah and Dr. Askey had their last goodbye, which was bittersweet. Hannah made the announcement to the household that “Dinner tonight will be at 7 sharp.”
I am not aware of Anton Chekhov’s treatment of this story. I know that all the names are different, and I suspect the story is very much the same as Michael Blakemore has put forth, but I wonder if Chekhov was able to elicit the subtle humor that emanated in this version of the story, along with the sadness that each character experienced. I shall read “Uncle Vanya” at my first opportunity to appease my curiosity.