Despite a stellar cast, this film adaptation of Chekhov’s classic play merely hits the expected notes.
Adapting Anton Chekhov’s acclaimed 1895 play, The Seagull boasts complex material and a commanding cast capable of doing it justice. And yet, in director Michael Mayer (TV’s Alpha House) and screenwriter Stephen Karam’s (Speech & Debate) hands, the latest version of this iconic work remains little more than standard. As a showcase for three of today’s finest actresses, the film delivers meaty roles for Annette Bening (Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool), Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) and Saoirse Ronan (On Chesil Beach), who feud, ponder affairs of the heart and flit around a country estate. As a staging of Chekhov’s classic, however, it merely hits the expected notes.
At the turn of the twentieth century, successful actress Irina Arkadina (Bening), her elder brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy, The Blacklist) and her son Konstantin (Billy Howle, On Chesil Beach) spend the summer on their well-appointed lakeside property, which is overseen throughout the year by groundskeeper Shamrayev (Glenn Fleshler, Barry), his wife Polina (Mare Winningham, The Affair) and their daughter Masha (Moss). Bringing her companion, writer Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll, First Man), along with her, Irina is the centre of attention — or so she’d prefer. Alas, she has a rival in neighbour and aspiring thespian Nina, who the lovelorn Konstantin has cast in his latest play. When he unveils the experimental production for the vacationing group, including Doctor Dorn (Jon Tenney, Major Crimes) and teacher Mikhail (Michael Zegen, Tyrel) as well, a web of desire, yearning and betrayal makes itself evident.
The amorous and the artistic sit at the centre of Chekhov’s drama, though emphasis falls firmly on the former. Indeed, the story’s romantic conflicts are evident almost instantly, albeit amid much discussion about creative pursuits. Nina is besotted with Trigorin to both Irina and Konstantin’s dismay, while Masha pines over the oblivious latter and ignores Mikhail’s advances. That’s just a sample of the narrative’s love triangles, which arrive as an extended flashback in the feature’s one significant change. Commencing with Irina rushing to the ailing Sorin’s bedside after a performance, Mayer and Karam structure the bulk of the film as a sunlit remembrance on a dark night.
That’s a canny approach, at least thematically. While interconnected romances drive a plot that seesaws between humour and sorrow, The Seagull has always proven more fascinated with why its pre-Bolshevik Russian characters behave in the ways the do, rather than what they’re specifically doing. The movie’s framing device firmly underscores this focus, with viewers meeting its characters on a fraught evening, then exploring the substance behind their bonds — a technique that’s mirrored when the ties that bind everyone together are made plain over one eventful summer, as is the true nature of everyone involved in the process.
Accordingly, as Irina bullies her son for wanting her approval yet demands the undying attention of everyone around her, Masha opines about the futility of marriage yet dreams of her own romantic bliss, and Nina is both a naive ingénue and a determined pursuer of Trigorin, telling juxtapositions abound in The Seagull. Thanks to stellar work from not only Bening, Moss and Ronan, but their co-stars too, textured performances abound as well. Still, as emotionally heaving and handsomely staged as it all is — and, crucially, never beholden to stage conventions — the end result often feels like a box-ticking exercise in meeting the requisite marks.
Throw its various pieces together — the stars, the material, the roving camerawork, the gorgeous setting — and any cinematic version of The Seagull would play out exactly as this does. Its love-struck characters haven’t imparted one of their chief lessons upon the movie’s makers however: that neatness, vibrancy and contentment never go hand-in-hand.
Rating: 2 ½ stars out of 5 ★★☆
Director: Michael Mayer
US, 2018, 98 mins
Release date: 4 October 2018
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