"Duet for One" (at the Music Hall) was a high risk going in. There have been so many TV movies about fatal maladies that the genre is now known uncharitably as "Disease of the Week." Then, too, women's lives and the way they are perceived on the screen have changed so profoundly that the four-hankie "woman's picture" of the '30s and '40s is a thing of the past. Except that that's what "Duet for One" is.
In bringing Tom Kempinski's play to the screen, director Andrei Konchalovsky and Julie Andrews have forged ahead against the odds, with results that are uneven at best, although the final moments are affecting, thanks to Andrews' vibrant presence and sheer professionalism.
Where Konchalovsky, Kempinski and co-adapter Jeremy Lipp went wrong was in a drastic opening up of a two-character play. Indeed, the writing is so uneven that you would suspect "Duet for One" began as a two-character play even if you didn't know.
Said to have been inspired by the real-life plight of cellist Jacqueline Du Pre, and drawn as well from a dark period of Kempinski's own life, "Duet for One" introduces us to Stephanie Anderson (Andrews), a world-class violinist who at the peak of her career learns that she has multiple sclerosis. We are meant to view her fate as exceptionally poignant, for until now she has had it all--expression as an artist, good looks, fame and fortune, devoted friends and retainers and a beloved husband (Alan Bates) who is a conductor and avant-garde composer.
The trouble is that none of these people are nearly so well drawn as the play's original two characters, the violinist and her psychiatrist (Max Von Sydow), who tells her that she will either succumb to or confront the paralyzing illness for which there is no cure.
"Duet for One" comes alive when Andrews and Von Sydow spar as equals in character and intelligence. Defeatingly, their confrontations are infrequent and so brief they seem truncated.
Bates has never been shown to such disadvantage on the screen. An unkempt mop of black-dyed hair makes him resemble an aging gigolo. Worse yet, the conductor is allowed to show nary a quiver of hesitation or remorse as he dashes off on a Far Eastern tour with his young, healthy secretary (Cathryn Harrison) at his side.
Never mind that his wife, fighting back initial jealousy, has urged him on (and is making her own moves out of rage at her condition). Any man who supposedly loves his wife, as this man is said to have, would at least be a little slower to split.
Rupert Everett is also wasted as Anderson's extravagantly emotional pupil, a gifted violinist of working-class origins who peddles his genius to Las Vegas.
Liam Neeson, however, is quite believable as the virile scrap dealer (a rather too symbolic profession) with whom Anderson has a fling, but the effect is spoiled by bringing on his wife, whose cheerful acceptance of his infidelity exceeds belief.
Confronted with a life-threatening predicament, Julie Andrews might be expected to behave as she did in husband Blake Edwards' splendid "That's Life," in which she waited out a biopsy report with admirable self-control and concern for others. There's such strength and sensibility at the core of Andrews' enduring radiance that the all-stops-out Crawford-Davis-Stanwyck kind of temperament she displays here seems far removed from her well-established screen image. But as improbable as the frequent emotional fireworks seem, Andrews strives to bring conviction to them, attempting to show us a woman struggling mightily and furiously toward a calm and yielding acceptance of her mortality.
Konchalovsky's high-toned approach is fitting for Chekhov, but "Duet for One" (rated R for sex, nudity and language) is closer to Olive Higgins Prouty. Indeed, it would probably play better as a period piece, because its occasional coarse talk and strenuous attempts to be trendy clash with the melodramatic yet genteel genre to which it inescapably belongs. You're left wishing Julie Andrews got to run the gamut in more rewarding circumstances.
'DUET FOR ONE'
A Cannon Group presentation of a Menahem Golan-Yoram Globus production. Director Andrei Konchalovsky, Screenplay Tom Kempinski, Jeremy Lipp & Konchalovsky; based on Kempinksi's play. Camera Alex Thomson. Music played by the Symphonia of London. Production designer John Graysmark. Costumes Evangeline Harrison. Assoc. producer Michael J. Kagan. Music Consultant Alan Smyth. Music coach and adviser Peter Daniels. Film editor Henry Richardson. Additional film editing by Peter Weatherley. With Julie Andrews, Alan Bates, Max Von Sydow, Rupert Everett, Marguerite Courtenay, Cathryn Harrison, Sigfrit Steiner, Liam Neeson, Macha Meril.
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.
MPAA rating: R (Under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian.)