One of Ira Gershwin’s lyrics refers to “more clouds of grey than any Russian play could guarantee”. He might have been thinking of Chekhov’s The Sea Gull, an exquisitely morbid observation of lifestyles of the bourgeois and lugubrious. Or maybe the Beatles saw a production before writing about Eleanor Rigby and all the lonely people.
Everyone at the country estate bathes in the fresh summer, the lake breeze, and the martyrdom of unreciprocated love. An ambitious young writer (David Warner) moans because nobody understands him, including the successful artists around him, such as his self-centered actress mother (Simone Signoret) and her lover, an author (James Mason) who’s equally good at explaining the existential awfulness of being a respected writer—“not as good as Tolstoy!” That speech feels uncomfortably true, and one wonders how much of himself Chekhov was investing in the character.
You might think director Sidney Lumet, specialist in gritty urbanism, would be out of his element, but that would overlook his lengthy experience in TV plays. He orchestrates the actors with Gerry Fisher’s cinematography in lengthy pans and sweeps across the outdoors, or circling and backing cautiously indoors to capture the shifting groups. The actors are on their toes, and the result is that, no matter how impatient you might be with these folks, the last act (set two years later) can’t help building to a strong impact. The only over-step is Chekhov’s, as he causes Nina (Vanessa Redgrave) self-consciously to belabor the titular symbol. “I am a seagull!” she must repeat, in case we haven’t gotten it, but how she shines in that lengthy scene anyway. All at once, the frustrated young man understands that not only has Nina become a good actress, but that his old play is better than he thought—and it’s already part of the past he’s compromised away.
The pretty film, shot in Sweden with some scenes so soft-focused you’ll think your eyes are watering, is now available on demand from Warner Archives.