Chekov’s first major work gets light treatment
The Seagull, Michael Mayer’s film version of the classic Chekhov play, has a lot going for it—a strong and appealing cast, in particular, as well as the enduring appeal of Chekhovian drama in full flower. But while it does indeed do us the favor of delivering the Chekhovian goods and showcasing three remarkable performers (Annette Bening, Elisabeth Moss, Saoirse Ronan), the movie wears its prestigious qualities respectfully, but a little too lightly.
Set in Russia circa 1900, the story revolves around two separate summertime visits of a family of actors and writers to their country estate. A grandiloquent actress (Benning) presides over the gatherings, but the estate’s permanent residents are the actress’ lordly, ailing brother (Brian Dennehy) and her passionately ambitious son Konstantin (Billy Howle), a fledgling artist, writer, musician and avant-gardist who dreams of creating radical new forms of theater.
Bening’s Irina Arkadina is accompanied by the paradoxically magisterial and muddled Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), a writer who is her current lover, and she’s still getting fond attention from Dr. Dorn (Jon Tenney), a local physician and somewhat forlorn bachelor. Masha (Moss), the despairing daughter of the estate’s caretakers (Glenn Fleshler and Mare Winningham), is hopelessly in love with Konstantin but already mournfully aware she’ll probably end up marrying a feckless young schoolteacher (Michael Zegen).
Konstantin, meanwhile, is furiously attracted to Nina (Ronan), a neighboring farm girl who dreams of becoming a star actress. Both of them, however, get seriously sidetracked—she with Boris and he with his frantic and desperate appetite for genuine attention from his mother.
Mayer and screenwriter Stephen Karam treat all this as a brisk, but somewhat tentative combination of costume-drama and romantic-comedy. That approach works well enough for the purposes of glancingly serious entertainment, but it also undercuts and to some extent trivializes what otherwise might have been key strengths in characterization, theme and performance.
There are close to a dozen noteworthy performances in this film, with Bening, Moss, Ronan, Stoll, and Dennehy being particularly striking. But Mayer’s direction of the actors seems rather uneven, at times, and the direction and production design in effect rob some of the characterizations of their complexities and interrelatedness by literally isolating individuals in huge widescreen close-ups at key moments.
Mayer and company occasionally seem prone to haste and oversimplification and therefore at a loss with some of the more nuanced moments of Chekhovian tragicomedy. And the brisk pacing serves only to put the brooding worldliness of Chekhov even further in the background.