This is a film in which exquisite performers deliver tremendous speeches and yet oddly manage to say very little. It all looks gorgeous but that’s really part of the problem.
The Seagull is the latest attempt by filmmakers at translating the work of Anton Chekhov from stage to screen. Except, this is not, strictly speaking the work of filmmakers. Director Michael Mayer hasn’t made a film in over a decade, whilst The Seagull is only the second screen attempt of writer Stephen Karam; both are, instead, Tony award-winning men of theatre. Here, theirs is an all too clear pedigree.
As in Chekhov’s play, Mayer’s film unfolds almost entirely on a lakeside country estate, some way out of Moscow. Annette Bening plays self-aggrandising actress Irina Arkadina, a darling who spends her Summers visiting her ailing brother Pjotr (Brian Dennehy), his family and her would-be radical writer of a son Konstantin (Billy Howle). Originally conceived for commentary, as much as storytelling value, these are characters who vocalise themselves vaingloriously and serve neat thematic parallels.
Whilst the plot itself is relatively straightforward, its story exists within a complex web of star-crossed, troubled and unrequited lovers. Konstantin loves hopeful but hopeless actress Nina (Saoirse Ronan – once more ironically ill-fated with Howle) yet she has fallen for Boris (Corey Stroll), the self-doubting writer who, in turn, is attached to Irina. A terrific Elizabeth Moss, meanwhile, plays depressive Masha – ‘I’m in mourning…for my life’ – who loves Konstantin and is adored by Mikhail, a quietly excellent Michael Zegen.
The Shakespearean scenography of Chekhov’s Seagull has always been stage dressing to a more directly realist morality. In the case of the film, however, it is hard not to feel that such bite is lost among reverence, charming score and warm visuality. In representing the play as more period piece than timeless societal commentary – concerned with fame and self doubt, ambition and disillusionment – Mayer builds only a sense of indifference and distance. His Seagull is lovely to look at but not much to engage with.
Most problematic, to this end, is Mayer’s failure to appreciate his directorial role as being the film’s unseen voice. Film and theatre are different media by default and require variant methodologies. Utilising his setting as a real-world stage for his performers, however, Mayer seems content to allow them to drive the narrative. This goes so far as to see him frequently employ a mobilised camera over edited composition.
Thankfully, Mayer can at least be said to have assembled an idyllic ensemble. Herein is an all-star cast, all on form. Howle elevates his wilfully pompous role – ‘I am insanely happy’ – to lively effervescence, while Bening steals every scene she is in. Naturally.
Likewise, for all that he misses in translating Chekhov, Karam is successful in accessing the Russian wordsmith’s wry comic value. The Seagull is an often very funny film. In one sequence, witness Irina decline on being asked to sing – ‘hardly my forte’ – before bursting into song when attention shifts to Nina. ‘‘I haven’t sung like that in years,’ she trills afterwards, ‘I was so good.’
Were Mayer to have adopted a rawer tone – one more like Love & Friendship or A Quiet Passion, in his period approach, this might have made more a more involving, bittersweet and witty drama. Instead, this Seagull is too staged to ever truly fly.