During the first minutes of “Drive My Car,” the remarkable Oscar-nominated movie about making art in the aftermath of excruciating loss, director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi drops a tantalizing hint of his elegant thesis, about how seductively theater informs life.
As “Drive My Car” revolves around a contemporary production of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” at a theater in Hiroshima, Japan, this narrative detail might seem offhand. But it actually conveys a profound intersection with Chekhov’s masterwork, a moment at which a mundane implement becomes an object of desire. In the final act of “Vanya,” Yelena — married to elderly professor Serebryakov but in love with virile Dr. Astrov — has a touching impulse as she bids Astrov goodbye. “I’m taking this pencil,” she explains, “to remember you by.”
The conversation between the 2021 movie and the play from 1899, in other words, goes deep. I’d even venture to say that “Drive My Car” is the most perceptive illumination of a play on film that I’ve ever experienced. An examination of theater’s power through the visceral, visual techniques of moviemaking has been undertaken time and again: Recent examples include other films vying for Oscars, like Joel Coen’s stylized, black-and-white “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, and Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s updated “West Side Story.”
But those efforts, like so many film adaptations before them, distill essentially only the basic ingredients of their stage sources — plot, character, music — and as a result feel more imitative than transformative. The success in these instances is akin to a moving company that hasn’t damaged the furniture. It’s rarer that the transfer from three dimensions to two draws out previously unrealized strengths. Witness the vitalizing imaginative energy director Lin-Manuel Miranda brings to “Tick, Tick … Boom!,” an artist-finding-his-footing musical by Jonathan Larson that onstage can come across as rather twee. Miranda uses filmic tools that better illustrate a struggling composer’s restless, desperate need to be heard. On screen, particularly through a dynamite star turn by Andrew Garfield, Miranda has discovered exhilarating new chords.
“Drive My Car” is an altogether more complex and yet inspiringly accessible treatment of theater on film. In the story of middle-aged Yusuke and the young woman, Tôko Miura’s deceptively stoic Misaki Watari, hired to drive him, the movie manages to reveal both how a production comes to the stage and how two people struggling in isolating silences come together. It’s also an impeccably textured elucidation of a group of strangers joining up to animate the written word, and of the ways a great play remains eternally relevant.
Hamaguchi’s love of theater emerges in the precision with which he documents the process of rehearsal. Yusuke, who in one of the early scenes performs in a Tokyo production of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” is summoned to Hiroshima, where its Arts and Culture Theater is mounting “Uncle Vanya.” A rebuilt Hiroshima, obliterated in the dropping of the atomic bomb during World War II, is depicted here as vibrantly modern, itself a Chekhovian emblem of resilience. In yet another demonstration of the multiple layers on which a work of narrative art can operate, the cast of Yusuke’s “Vanya” is international, hailing from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines. They each speak their lines in their native languages or in English — including the actress portraying Sonya (Park Yurim), “Uncle Vanya’s” heart-aching model of forbearance. She converses in Korean Sign Language.
Theater people will find a special affinity for a movie in which one of the characters is identified as the production’s dramaturge, or literary adviser, an often unsung member of a play’s creative team. The film takes pains to record Yusuke’s unorthodox directorial style, and it somehow manages to avoid seeming pedantic: In extended sequences, the actors sit in the rehearsal room, reading the play devoid of inflection, indicating the end of a line by knocking on the table. It’s Yusuke’s way of keeping emotion at bay until, in performance, it can no longer be contained.
The multilingual approach means the actors can’t always truly “hear” one another. And yet, as “Drive My Car” suggests, there’s a universality that belies language in the plight of Chekhov’s characters, particularly in the bond between Vanya (initially, in the guise of Masaki Okada) and niece Sonya. Toiling thanklessly on behalf of a self-regarding professor, famous mostly in his own mind, they’re trapped in a vise of oppressive unhappiness that they feel powerless to escape.
“They dream, they hope, they try to understand,” the revered theater critic Harold Clurman wrote about the characters in a review of a 1946 production. “They struggle against hopelessness and bitterness, they seek to preserve a remainder of moral sanity through human sympathy. … Even in their dejection, they retain to an astonishing degree the redeeming virtues of [people] who suffer innocently, but do not altogether break.”
The description holds up with painful accuracy for Yusuke and his driver Misaki, as their shared history of sorrow comes ever more potently into view. The script by Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe, based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, strives for parallel emotionality but never on-the-nose alignment with Chekhov’s play. In ways far different from Vanya and Sonya, Yusuke and Misaki are in mourning, in their cases for loved ones who betrayed them. Thus, one’s imagination is pricked but not pummeled by the connections one is encouraged to entertain, between the film and stage characters.
That is, until the climax of the movie, which mirrors the ending of the play more concretely than anything that has come before. The epiphany happens in “Drive My Car” on a snow-covered hill in northern Japan, to which Yusuke and Misaki travel in Yusuke’s classic red Saab. The site is where her cruel mother met an equally cruel end. The shattering reality of Misaki’s tragic past forces Yusuke out of his own complacency.
“You and I must keep living like that,” he implores her. “We must keep on living!”
In effect, he’s been transported in that moment out of himself and into the consciousness of Chekhov’s Sonya, who ends the play as the emotional bulwark for Vanya’s flagging will. “We’ve got to live!” she declares (in playwright Richard Nelson’s translation for a 2018 production). “We will live, Uncle Vanya. We’ll live through a long, long string of days, of drawn-out evenings. We’ll patiently endure the trials destiny sends us.”
One of the beauties of “Drive My Car” is that you do not have to devote hours of contemplation to “Uncle Vanya,” though I submit a familiarity with the play does enhance one’s admiration. Hamaguchi’s movie, the best of 2021 in my estimation, stands sublimely on its own — even if the filmmaker at the wheel has his internal GPS set on a route that began more than a century ago.