THE SEAGULL

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Michael Mayer

Stars: Annette Bening, Corey Stoll, Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Brian Dennehy, Elisabeth Moss, Mare Winningham, Jon Tenney, Glenn Fleshler, Michael Zegen.

Annette Bening and Jon Tenney in The Seagull (2018)The Seagull is a new adaptation of the classic tragicomedy from Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, which was written in 1896, and was the first of his great dramas. When it was first performed in Moscow the play was critically maligned and was a deemed a critical failure and a major flop that almost saw Chekhov give up his writing career. This rather staid adaptation doesn’t do justice to Chekhov’s play either. There have been several film versions of the play, including one by the late great Sidney Lumet in 1968 that starred the likes of James Mason and Vanessa Redgrave.

Set at the turn of the century on a beautiful country estate outside Moscow and following the romantic entanglements of a group of characters, this is a tale of unrequited love, jealousy, depression and family. Aging and vain actress Irina Arkadina (played by Annette Bening, from Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, etc) spends a weekend at a country estate along with her older brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy, from First Blood, etc), a former high ranking party official. She brings along her lover Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll, from First Man, etc), a successful novelist.

Also in attendance is Irina’s troubled, self-loathing son Konstantin (Billy Howle, from Dunkirk, etc), an aspiring playwright who wants to shake up the literary scene by creating a new kind of drama. Nina (Soairse Ronan, from Ladybird, etc) is a teenage girl from a neighbouring estate who is herself an aspiring actress and is in love with the handsome Konstantin. He casts her in his new drama, but things do not go smoothly, and she soon seeks comfort in the arms of the seductive Boris.

Meanwhile, Masha (Elisabeth Moss, from The Handmaid’s Tale, etc), the daughter of the estate’s manager Shamrayev (Glenn Fleshler, from the tv series Billions, etc) is also in love with Konstantin, but he doesn’t return her affections.

All of this creates tensions that threaten to throw the supposedly idyllic weekend into chaos. All of the characters are flawed and self-absorbed, and their insecurities and sad lives are laid bare here.

Unfortunately the screenplay from Tony award winning writer Stephen Karam (The Humans, etc). Karam has truncated Chekhov’s lengthy play and distilled it down to its essence, which does the epic material something of a disservice. He fails to capitalise on the drama and the tensions inherent in this volatile situation. The Seagull (a metaphorical title at best) has been brought to the screen by Tony award winning veteran theatre director Michael Mayer (A Home At The End Of The World, etc), but his handling of the material is still a bit stodgy and theatrical. His direction is laboured and the film is a little tonally uneven, and even though he tries to give it a contemporary relevance it lacks any real sense of urgency.

Mayer however draws solid performances from his ensemble cast. Bening is excellent as the cold Irina, and delves deeply into her inner turmoil. Howle and Ronan, who both appeared together as another pair of troubled young lovers torn apart by personal issues in the recent equally dour drama On Chesil Beach, are both good here. Ronan continues to impress with yet another nuanced and layered performance that shows a maturity beyond her years.

However, the film looks visually stunning thanks to some exquisite production design from Jane Musky (Finding Forrester, etc), and some beautiful cinematography from Matthew J Lloyd (Daredevil, etc).

★★

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