Directed by Michael Mayer/2018
Taking on a Russian play from noted playwright Anton Chekhov is always a risky move. Trying to contemporarize it, and translate it for the screen in a way that keeps intact everything that makes it a memorable story is an even tighter line to walk. For director Michael Mayer, who directed Hatfields & McCoys, this was a labor of love. A huge fan of the Checkov play, and his many other works, Mayer sought to thread the needle of faithfully adapting the story for a contemporary audience, while bringing something new to the proceedings. Screenwriter Stephen Karam delivers Mayers a mixed bag in the form of the script, but with lots of heavy lifting by a very talented cast, The Seagull soars high enough, even if it is eventually brought down, much like the titular bird that symbolically encapsulates this story of unrequited love.
It is the early 1900’s and famed Russian actress Irina (Annette Bening) has been called away from the theater in Moscow to rush back to the family home in the country where her aging and sick brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy) has requested her presence before he dies. We then flashback slightly to an earlier time, in the recent past when everyone was gathered at the home and miserably in love with someone who wasn’t returning the affection to them.
Irina’s son, Konstantin (Billy Howle) has rejected the mainstream and popular plays of Moscow, seeing them as pop-cultural drivel masquerading as art. He is, in many ways, rejecting the theater world that his mother so loves. He, like any young person, pours his heart into the plays he has written, laden down with dour cynicism and emotion, yet raw and visceral. His muse and girlfriend, a local girl named Nina (Saoirse Ronan), is the star of a play he presents one night at the family gathering. Adding weight to this particular evening is Konstantin’s mother’s guest, the great playwright Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), another person whose mass acceptance in pop-culture riles Konstantin’s artistic sensibilities.
When Konstantin cuts short the performance due to his mother’s open heckling from the audience, retreating away to sulk, it sets in motion a series of events that reveals that no one is truly with the one that loves them back. The Seagull is really like the Russian version of the J. Geils Band’s song “Love Stinks“:
“You love her, but she loves him. And he loves somebody else; you just can’t win. And so it goes, till the day you die. This thing they call love, it’s gonna make you cry.” (Peter Wolf/Seth Justman)
Soon we see that Nina is quite taken with Boris, who despite being with Irina, really has seen something fresh and original in Nina’s performance that draws his lustful eye toward her. Konstantin loves Nina, but now is losing her, while family friend Masha (Elisabeth Moss) pines for Konstantin, miserable that she is being pursued by Yakov, a poor school teacher. Sorin, watches it all as a man who longed to live in the city and be a playwright with a family, sit amidst the dysfunction of his extended family, in the country, where he is sick and dying. Even the local doctor, and the cook get in on this endless cycle of living out the J. Geils mantra, love stinks!
The cast obviously loves being a part of this story as each talented member pours their heart into their performance, despite an often slow and uninspired script that, in spite of this criticism, actually flirts with moments of real levity. Elisabeth Moss is the real stand-out performer here, and is actually given the most comedic lines and narrative arc, like declaring “I’m going to tear this love out of my heart”. When asked how, she replies, “I’m going to get married”. When asked why she always wears black, she replies with rapier wit, “I’m in mourning…for my life”.
Saoirse Ronan continues to enchant following her breakout performances in Brooklyn and Lady Bird, and Annette Bening keeps getting better with time, as evidenced in her recent performances in 20th Century Women and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.
There is enough here for The Seagull to soar on the strength of the source material and cast, as well as Mayer’s obvious love for the Chekhov play on which it is based. More could have been done, however, to deepen the ties of the audience with the many characters on screen. We never get a depth for anyone in particular, in so much as we need to truly care what they are feeling so that their misery becomes the comedy of life. Instead, we must find the comedy in the situations each person finds themselves in, while having very little to ground it to the character’s themselves. Instead of truly empathizing with each character, we instead find ourselves compensating by substituting the desired depth of characters for the strength of the actors and their natural charm that comes across in their performance. This is what ultimately brings down The Seagull. Although in a case of life imitating art, this helps draw out the symbolism of Konstantin’s shooting of the titular bird all the more.