Drive My Car: Uncle Vanya Hits the Road
Cinema history is littered with stage adaptations, films that take the inherent (and often wonderful) constraints of a play and translate them to a medium that has more spatially expansive potential — a not always successful, but frequently fascinating, work of adaptation. Less common (though perhaps not by much) are the films about the stage, which often function as adaptations in their own way. Drive My Car, from writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, falls into the latter camp: strictly speaking, it’s an adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story of the same, but it’s also taking elements from other Murakami stories from the same collection, and the driving narrative force is so deeply in conversation with Chekov’s Uncle Vanya that the film serves as a loose reinterpretation of that text as well.
Sound dense? Well sure, it is, at least thematically; the premise is simple, perhaps deceptively so: following upheaval in his personal life, acclaimed theatre director and actor Yūsuke Kafuku takes a job staging a production of Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima, where for liability reasons the theatre company designates a young woman, Misaki Watari, to be his chauffeur, ferrying him back and forth in his red Saab. As the play’s opening draws near, connections between Kafuku, Watari, their pasts, and the other actors come into focus — from a storytelling standpoint, Hamaguchi’s expert craftsmanship makes for an incredibly accessible film that even at a full three hours never seems a minute too long. That the first hour primarily exists as an extended prologue and much of the subsequent two hours either involve conversations in a car or multilingual play rehearsals, yet everything feels both vital and riveting, is a testament to Hamaguchi’s brilliance with pace, tone, and character.
Smartly edited by Azusa Yamazaki, scenes have plenty of room to breathe but don’t overstay their welcome — the emotional thrusts are propulsive in their own right and carry us through a film that often feels novelistic. Hidetoshi Shinomiya’s cinematography likewise opens up the narrative and character work, utilizing an array of compositions to hold us at an emotional distance before drawing us into intimate moments or inner conflicts. Shinomiya’s collaborative camera highlights the delicate, nuanced work of the film’s performers, who play their roles (and their roles within roles) to perfection. As Kafuku, Hidetoshi Nishijima powers the movie, making great use of stillness and reservedness to present a portrait of an artist struggling to anchor himself to a life that’s changed around him. As Watari, Tōko Miura matches Nishijima’s pathos, slowly peeling back layers of her character until her status as both mirror and kindred spirit becomes clear; together the two could be seen as refractions of Vanya and Sonya, but in the end the metaphor is far from that simple to unpack.
Though he’s been working for years (and garnered significant acclaim for Happy Hour and the great Asako I & II), 2021 may eventually be seen as Hamaguchi’s breakthrough year: alongside Drive My Car, he also directed the forthcoming Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and co-wrote Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s tricky genre piece Wife of a Spy. Any plaudits he receives are entirely deserved, as Drive My Car captures the essence of theatre and the human condition with compassion and intelligence — it’s as impressive, expansive, and moving as any film you’ll see this year.