Reviewed by Lee Hill
Unlike Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams, the film adaptations of Anton Chekhov’s plays and short stories have not made much of an impact beyond festivals or art houses. While I still have vivid memories of watching Vanessa Redgrave, Natasha Richardson and Jonathan Pryce in a 1985 West End production of The Seagull, only Sidney Lumet obsessives are likely to remember the director’s curious 1968 version with Redgrave, James Mason and Simone Signoret. Lumet was probably more faithful to Chekhov’s themes of families and fading dreams in Running on Empty, his potent 1988 elegy for the idealism and myopia of New Left radicals on the run.
Yes, there were were nice reviews and a Golden Lion for Nikita Mikhalkov’s Dark Eyes (1987), but the best I could come up with in not so recent times was Louis Malle’s Uncle Vanya on 42 Street (1994). The French director’s final film was a remarkable study of what makes actors tick. Yet it was as much about the post-modern concerns of Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory as it was about Chekhov.
Michael Mayer’s adaptation of The Seagull is not going to turn Chekhov into a high brow Marvel franchise, but it captures most of what makes the playwright timeless by striking the right balance between comedy and tragedy. The Anglo-American speech patterns soon click into place thanks to upbeat direction and a cast who have proven themselves in both film and the stage by working hard not to make acting seem such hard work. Mayer’s Seagull also benefits from a ravishing location on Arrow Lake near Monroe, New York, which becomes a comfortable, if somewhat worn at the edges estate in the Russian countryside.
As the aristocratic diva of the Moscow theatre, Irina (Annette Bening), returns to this home with her charismatic younger lover, Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), a successful novelist in the Turgenev mold. She is close to her older brother, Sorin, a retired civil servant who has never left the provinces, but who still indulges idle fantasies of experiencing the glamour of city life one day. Irina has a more complicated relationship with her son, Konstantin (Billy Howle), who strives to make his mark in the glittering world of letters, and stages Strindberg-like pastiches with Nina (Saoirse Ronan), a young woman he grew up with, desperate to become a famous actress like Irina. Masha (Elisabeth Moss), the daughter of the estate manager and his wife (Glenn Flesher and Mare Winningham), is infatuated with Sorin and sees Nina as her intellectual inferior. Observing these proceedings with appropriate Chekhovian empathy and tempered nostalgia is Dorn (Jon Tenney), who once had an affair with Irina when everyone was much younger.
Mayer’s Seagull manages to be both theatrical and filmic. It reminds one of a well crafted summer stock production featuring great Broadway or West End actors flexing their muscles away from show biz pressures. Running at a taut 99 minutes, it evokes a seemingly timeless holiday, where the weather is just right and each day feels like it is going to bring about some epiphany (one soon to be forgotten or sublimated once autumn and responsibility returns). In addition to the taut editing by Annette Davey and the luminous cinematography by Matthew Lloyd, the adaptation by Stephen Karam’s screenplay gets the period details right, but thanks to almost Hawksian pacing, its fidelity to Chekov’s themes never feels suspended in amber.
In the end, any new version of The Seagull lives or dies on its performances. Bening’s Nina is an effortless mix of vanity, joie de vivre and a discreet awareness of mortality. Elisabeth Moss adds satiric bite to Masha channeling Charles Adams and emo-band angst. Stoll, perhaps best known as the doomed reporter from the US House of Cards, gets Trigorin’s faux humility just right. Dennehy feels slightly miscast as Sorin, but one soon warms to the gentle humour and surprising calm he invests in the role of a brother who has always known his daydreams were just that.
The Seagull is a perfect antidote to the end of the summer blues. It may seem to be another sobering examination of John Lennon’s maxim that life is what happens to us when we are busy making other plans, but it does this in a celebratory fashion. True, we may all be moving towards the same event horizon, but it doesn’t mean we can’t make the journey on our own terms.
Directed by Michael Mayer, Screenplay by Stephen Karam based on the play by Anton Chekhov, Produced by Tom Hulce
Starring Annette Bening, Corey Stoll, Brian Dennehy, Mare Winningham, Saoirise Ronan
Released on 7 September 2018