The first performance of playwright Anton Chekhov's The Seagull in 1896 was disastrous, with the cast nearly booed from the stage. But a revival two years later, directed by the legendary Konstantin Stanislavski, was a rousing success.
Chekhov, in only his third full-length play, rejected the melodramatic conventions of the day, instead presenting his audience scenes from real life; people grousing with frustrations and regrets, or voicing opinions and bickering. He set a revolutionary course for theater and the nascent medium of cinema in the century that followed.
Ironically, it turns out that The Seagull, a play that unexpectedly transformed theater through realism, is itself about transforming theater. But when it comes to film adaptations of Chekhov's plays, realism tends to be avoided. Instead, the actors speak in full sentences and never over each other, and scenes are staged and photographed with the same artifice that the playwright expressly avoided. Michael Mayer's adaptation of The Seagull, out in theaters today, does the same, which might be why, as entertaining and as lovingly crafted as it is, it fails to transcend.
At a country estate by the lake, friends and family have gathered to watch a play by budding playwright Konstantin, (Billy Howle), starring his girlfriend, Nina (Saoirse Ronan). In attendance are Konstantin's mother, Irina (Annette Bening), an actress, and her lover, the famous playwright Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), as well as the owner of the estate, Sorin, (Brian Dennehy), Dr. Dorn (Jon Tenney), Shamrayev (Glenn Fleshler), the caretaker, his wife, Polina (Mare Winningham), and their daughter, Masha (Elisabeth Moss).
Konstantin's play, an experimental piece flouting existing theatrical conventions, goes over poorly, the curtain prematurely drawn by the playwright after his mother's muttered derision. What follows is a litany of private yearnings that all seem to skirt fulfillment and feed frustration. Konstantin yearns for a respectful career as a writer, but he also yearns for Nina, who yearns to be an actress in Moscow, but also yearns for Boris, who happens to be the object of Irina's yearning. As for Boris, he only yearns to fish, which, though predatory, seems harmless enough. When Nina romanticizes the writer's existence, Boris calls it a curse that compels him to filter every experience into words, though in the scenes that follow he does the opposite.
To illustrate his frustration over losing Nina, Konstantin shoots a seagull and gives it to her. When she recalls the unsettling incident to Boris, he conjures a tale about a man who happens upon a pretty girl by a lake and, having nothing better to do, destroys her. In the end, Boris invites Nina to Moscow where she hopes to become an actress. In a fateful move that dooms her, she accepts.
In the final act, which jumps ahead two years, Konstantin now lives in Moscow and has achieved success as an author, though he still yearns. In fact, they all do, except for Masha, the caretaker's daughter, who married the schoolmaster when she couldn't have Konstantin. "The only thing is you mustn't let yourself go, and always be expecting something, waiting for the tide to turn," she tells her mother. "When love plants itself in your heart, you have to clear it out."
It's tempting to say Moss, with her gimlet-eyed cynicism, steals the show, but that would be impossible with a cast this strong. In the past decade, Annette Bening has fully embraced mid-life and has found fascinating roles in doing so. In 20th Century Women she played a single mom who enlists the help of two younger women to raise her son. And in last year's Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool she played washed-up B-movie star Gloria Grahame, who falls in love with a younger man in her dying days. As Irina, Bening is both charming and cruel as she cultivates a confident celebrity exterior cloaking a selfish desperation so consuming it reduces her own son to a mere reminder of her advancing age.
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An actor Irina's own age is usually cast as Boris, but Corey Stoll, almost 20 years Bening's junior, represents an inspired move by the director. Stoll masterfully embodies the successful though jaded author whose passions are ignited by Nina during a boat trip on the lake. He approaches the role not as predator but as a middle-aged man besotted by youth in the form of Saoirse Ronan who conjures an inspired combination of naivete and idealism to offset her tragic end. As directed by Mayer, the sequence is dreamy, intimate and the one truly cinematic scene in the film.
Miscast as Konstantin, Billy Howle's emoting barely substitutes for the inner life Chekhov suggests in the text. Yet Howle's performance contains few hints at the complexity of Konstantin's relationship with his mother and with Boris, a man who has achieved what Konstantin longs for. The young man's relationship with the latter is further complicated by the fact that Boris arrived at the estate alongside Konstantin's mother and is departing with his beloved.
As expected, many of Chekhov's monologues are excised, but surprisingly little is compromised in the adaptation by playwright Stephen Karam, a Tony winner (The Humans), and two-time Pulitzer finalist. His incisive changes make for a brisk 99-minute running time while adding clarity and a lighter comedic touch.
Many years ago, when confronted with a rainy day, director John Ford's assistant once asked, "What can we shoot?" Ford answered, "The most interesting and exciting thing in the whole world, the human face." Mayer, who won a Tony for directing Spring Awakening and has been working in theater for 20 years, takes those words to heart, trusting not the tricks of cinema but his actors' abilities to convey inner thoughts through expression, not words.