Film adaptations of Anton Chekhov plays have had a largely losing record over the years, with few to none of them matching the quality of the stage works in critics’ eyes. Word is, Michael Mayer’s rif on a Chekhov classic, The Seagull, doesn’t quite capture the brilliance of its source material, according to those who laud the original.
At the risk of sounding less cultured than would behoove a film critic, I humbly admit that my familiarity with Chekhov and his work is minimal. The 1895 play wasn’t a personal point of reference for me going into the movie, so my experience wasn’t informed by comparisons between the two works. Whether that’s for better or for worse, the truth is, I found The Seagull to be a thoroughly engaging, funny, and deftly acted black comedy about unrequited love, generational spats, and the odd hilarity of watching interpersonal crises from a voyeuristic point of view.
Set in 19th century on a picturesque, forested estate, the story revolves around four artists, two middle-aged, two on the precipice of adulthood. Irna (Annette Bening), an accomplished actress whose perpetual need to be the center of attention rivals her need for oxygen to breathe, loves Boris (Corey Stoll), a famous author who slyly judges and manipulates those around him to inform his stories. Irna’s son, Konstantin (Billy Howle), an aspiring playwright who can’t seem to win his imperious mother’s approval no matter what he does, is in love with Nina (Saoirse Ronan, currently one of the most can’t-miss actors in the business), who dreams of being a successful actress like Irna one day.
But wide-eyed Nina develops a crush on Boris, who just might be willing to return her affections (and get his creative juices flowing while he’s at it). Irna and Konstantin are predictably shaken by their respective lovers’ betrayal, and yet can’t confide in one another because they’re hard-wired to be constantly at each others’ throats. The side characters are similarly unbalanced and distraught. Always eager to fill the ever-suffering Konstantin’s empty heart is the mopey, funereal Masha (an overachieving Elizabeth Moss, who steals almost every scene she’s in). The feeling, of course, isn’t mutual, but she’s got an admirer of her own, the persistent Mikhail (Michael Zegen). The cursed cascade of unrequited love goes on, and on, and on.
Elizabeth Moss (IMDB)
What makes these fractured relationships as funny as they are tragic are the behavioral eccentricities of the characters, many of whom have such an absurd lack of self-awareness that you can’t help but take their moans of agony as childish overreactions, though they never come off as disingenuous. When Irna chatters through a moonlit performance of one of Konstantin’s plays (it’s an unintelligible mess, but her disruptiveness is cruel nonetheless), he calls the whole thing off and runs to find a private pile of hay, which he proceeds to fall face-first into. It’s a teen-angst implosion that’s at once hilarious (we’ve all been there, so maybe the humor comes from a place of recognition) and heart-wrenching (the boy is all heart, but he takes himself too seriously). It’s difficult at times to decide as an audience member how to react (Laugh? Cry? Cringe?), and while this has a tendency muddy the experience, it can also adds a layer of verisimilitude to a scene that speaks to the uncommonly explored relationship between mourning and laughter.
Saoirse Ronan and Corey Stol (IMDB)
The estate’s tranquil lake, glistening under golden sunlight, and the lush, luxurious greenery practically mandate a breezy midsummer romance a la Eric Rohmer, and yet those expectations are subverted by the selfish, frustrated, unfulfilled aristocrats, who find their own ways wringing despair from their charmed little lives. The cinematography, by Matthew J. Lloyd, is pretty but also matches the peppiness of the performances. If there’s a weakness to the cinematic language of the film, it lies in the editing, which moves along too briskly to support the story’s contemplative side, though it does, perhaps, serve the humorous bits dialogue, which can often catch you off guard. When Masha informs Boris that she’s going to “rip the love” out of her heart, and he asks her how, she quickly replies, “I’ll get married!” These little gems are just wonderful, but the story gallops along at such a speed that it’s difficult for all of them to sink in.
The Seagull is a charming, if not all that poignant, comedy of manners whose true strength lies in the myriad one-on-one interactions between the actors, precise and pitch-perfect all. Bening and Ronan resonate the most initially, but it’s the secondary players — Moss, Brian Dennehy, playing Irna’s ailing brother — who creep up on you and hang around in the back of your brain for a good long while.