Shaw actually appears in the movie as a character, both in stock footage, and played by an actor. He's portrayed as a creature as much a creator of the characters in the film. Sokurov was apparently intensely interested in Shaw from a biographical perspective and apparently very knowledgeable on the subject, even visiting Shaw's Corner whilst in England.
Heartbreak House (it was shown under the play's name in the UK at one point, which is much better than the over-literal translation Mournful Unconcern) is the movie that first got Sokurov noticed by the international film crowd. The play it adapts concerns Shaw's feelings that the The Great War happened because the decadent elite did nothing to prevent it, were entirely unconcerned by the plight of the many, and were uninterested in any higher purpose or reform of old models of society. It had a deliberate Chekhovian feel to it and thus was a natural for a Russian director to pick up. I think Sokurov goes for an altogether darker take, with genuine surreal credentials on display. Certainly a lot of Shaw's elements are gone, the working class youngster Ellie is just as decadent as a whorehouse rake. A big part of the play is concerns how our perceptions of the characters change over time, here they don't seem to change one bit, excepting Mazzini's admission that he has not read any of the books he claims to have read (by Shaw-ian avant la lettre folk such as Saint-Simon), which comes over as a statement of the bleedin' obvious as opposed to a revelation. The plot concerns a group of individuals holed up in a house, steadfastly ignoring the world outside them (they can hear machine guns firing but describe them as mosquito humming). They are all heartbroken, or to break the modern romantic association, have more simply have lost heart. The drama of the play alternates between the bizarre goings on in Heartbreak House and found footage of new killing technologies from World War I (staggering highly select footage, stretched to a wider aspect ratio, which just gives it this really odd feel). One shot of a dirigible against a plain with a system of meanders is astonishing. Footage of experimental bombs is also skews the mind.
It's hard to describe what goes on as there is nothing much going on, although it always feels nothing less than concerning and riveting. Maybe the folks inside the house have perfected the art of doing nothing. It's a modern version of the Medieval Ship of Fools. Always there's leaden music in the background. The more universal element of the play is drawn out, the existential failure seems to have been that none of them have been interested in educating themselves, nor concerning themselves with the possibilities as opposed to the trivialities of life, of the chain reactions that can come from collaborations and synergy and doing things for each other together.
The interior of the house is dingy, and covered in palms and cheese plants, there is even a lazy pet boar and a dolorous heron.
Viktoria Amitova (Ellie) is a particular beautiful woman, and I can't quite work out why, but the scene where Gessiona is cradling her won't leave my mind.
Haunting, deliriously beautiful , and containing truths that are as relevant know as they have always been on the nature of existential barbarism.