Though it does feature stellar performances from Annette Bening and Saoirse Ronan, the new film adaptation of Anton Chekhov's celebrated play "The Seagull" suffers from a number of problems that hold it back from being a fully satisfying cinematic experience.
On the one hand, it does retain amongst its themes and motifs Chekhov's examinations of human unhappiness and melancholy, its roots and causes. For that, some audiences familiar with the playwright's work may forgive the film's occasional stiffness and structural missteps.
But for those just walking into the movie for its impressive cast or simply seeking an entertaining diversion without care for the film's literary origins, "The Seagull" will most likely come off as confusing, stilted, and ultimately moribund. It never transcends its origins, and though its insights into human behavior and sadness may be as poignant as ever, those insights get mostly lost in the translation.
What's it about?
Set for the most part in a country estate outside Moscow in 1904, "The Seagull" tells a number of stories revolving around the family of famed but fading actress Irina (Bening), who spends each summer at the house of her elder brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy).
One summer in particular, Irina brings her lover, the well-known author Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), home with her, which further triggers the jealousy and resentment of Irina's son, Konstantin (Billy Howle), an aspiring playwright who despises Boris's pedestrian writing and embraces a more avante-garde, symbolist mode of expression that few around him understand.
Konstantin is also very much in love with Nina (Ronan), his neighbor and an actress with dreams of fame and glory on the stage. While she is enamored with Konstantin and enjoys his affections, she longs for more, and the appearance of Irina and Boris in their lives come to physically represent all that she aspires to in life.
The play also deals with Masha (Elisabeth Moss), who desperately loves Konstantin and because he ignores her self-medicates; Polina (Mare Winningham), Masha's mother, who longs to be swept away from her dull marriage by the town doctor (Jon Tenney); and Sorin, who now and sick spends his days mired in regret for the risks he failed to take in life and his unfulfilled potential.
You get the idea. Everyone is in love or stuck with the wrong person, and miserable for it. Everyone wants more, to escape, to live a different life, and rather than see the good in their lives, wallows in their respective ruts, almost oblivious to the beauty and comforts their upper-to-middle-class lives afford them.
Fidelity to the source
Chekhov's play made its debut in 1896 and famously flopped, not because it was bad, but because it was light-years ahead of its time. More than a century later, "The Seagull" is considered the first of Chekhov's "great plays," but at the time his dramatic analysis of human discontent derived from unrequited longing for connection, for understanding, and for more earthly concerns such as wealth and social mobility hit way too close to home for his era's patrons of theater.
It's thus ironic that this latest rendition of "The Seagull," delivered as it is on film with a cast of contemporary luminaries, should come off as quaint and stuffy. Particularly in its first act, the film labors to unpack all the baggage each one of its characters carries at the start, and the effort feels sluggish.
Of course, human nature hasn't changed all that much from Chekhov's time, and so the insights into the human heart and human longing that he fills the play with are still as valid as ever, but the screenplay by Stephen Karam lacks nimbleness and subtlety, and director Michael Mayer's treatment of it lacks vision.
Instead, it simply beats you over the head with Chekhov's laments, and makes it difficult to connect with any of the characters on screen.
Bening, Ronan shine
What saves "The Seagull" from being a complete misfire is its cast, especially its top-billed leading ladies. Bening is pitch-perfect as the self-obsessed Irina, whose indelicate word and gesture belie her desperation to hold on to her beauty, her stardom, her wealth and her comforts, including the affections of Boris.
Ronan, meanwhile, is luminous as the naïve and starstruck Nina, the flip side of the coin from Irina. The film makes the most of Irina and Nina as opposites and mirrors of each other -- the aging star versus the ingenue, both eventually in love with the same man, both eventually incapable of truly loving the one man who adores them both -- and Ronan matches Bening's performance in terms of intensity, commitment, and nuance.
Moss, Howle, and Dennehy also turn in strong efforts here, but its these two performances that voting critics and Oscar pundits could be talking about come Awards Season, even despite the film's summer release. Thus, they're worth watching, even parts of the film around them fail to match what they bring to the effort.
For arthouse film lovers, period film fans, and audiences familiar with Chekhov's literary works, "The Seagull" may prove an interesting dive into a new interpretation of a classic.
It's not revelatory or a game-changer, and stylistically there are elements that may do more to throw viewers out of the narrative entirely rather than keep them engaged, but it does have its bright spots, too.
Starring Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Corey Stoll, Billy Howle, Elisabeth Moss, Mare Winningham and Brian Dennehy. Directed by Michael Mayer.
Running time: 98 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements, a scene of violence, drug use, and partial nudity.