Review: The Seagull

Sarah Ward

Despite a stellar cast, this film adaptation of Chekhov’s classic play merely hits the expected notes.
Review: The Seagull

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 ★★☆

The Seagull
Director: Michael Mayer
US, 2018, 98 mins

Release date: 4 October 2018
Distributor: Transmission
Rated: M

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, Flicks Australia, Metro Magazine and Screen Education. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay