I’ll admit it: I was a Chekhov virgin. So it’s fair to say that I approached this film with some trepidation as I wondered if my lack of familiarity with the great Russian playwright’s oeuvre would limit my enjoyment or understanding.
I needn’t have worried. In hindsight, I was the perfect audience. These Hollywood adaptations of classics seem tailor-made for those of us who have the occasional pretense to “high culture” yet are too lazy/busy/out-of-touch to find our way to the “real thing.” So I was grateful to finally see some Chekhov brought to life by a wonderful cast of actors.
The Seagull takes place on a gorgeous lakeside estate in late 19th century Russia and features a “privileged class” of summertime guests as they deal with themes of nostalgia, what it means to be a success, and how to navigate life’s inevitable disappointments, while falling in and out of love. And there’s an actual seagull in there, too – it’s not just a metaphor.
Now, let me see if I can get this straight: Nina (Saoirse Ronan), the young innocent wannabe actress loves Konstantin (Billy Howle, Dunkirk), a local writer frustrated by his lack of recognition. His mother, Irina (Annette Bening), a revered actress, who is one of the most amusingly vain people I’ve ever seen on screen, comes to visit with her younger lover, the famous novelist Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll, House of Cards). Naturally, things get strained when Boris and Nina start spending more time together than either of their partners would prefer. Oh, and then there’s Masha (Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid’s Tale), the delightfully depressive daughter of the estate steward who pines for Konstantin while ignoring the adoration of hapless teacher Mikhail (Michael Zegen).
But never mind the convolutions of the plot, or your head’ll spin. What really stood out here were the wonderful performances. Annette Bening, Corey Stoll, and Elisabeth Moss, in particular, excelled. Current hot property (with at least four films in the past year) Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird, On Chesil Beach) is compelling in her initial naivete, but I think I’m just more drawn to the complexities of the older characters and their more salient (for me, at least) struggles. The film is worth seeing just for the heartbreaking scene where Irina, painfully aware that society considers her “past it,” both professionally and as a lover, pleads with Boris not to confirm her worst fears (whilst she in turn all but ignores the needs of her suicidal son), or for Masha’s many witty proclamations on the pointless misery of love: “I am going to tear this love out of my heart…I’ll get married.”
Cinematically, the film is pretty (I’ll credit that mainly to the location), but fairly unremarkable. There are some distracting focusing choices in places and Michael Mayer’s direction often feels more like a “Sunday Theatre” TV movie. It tries its best to make the leap from the physical constraints of a play to the open palette of the screen, but some of the decisions in this regard seem to be trying a little too hard. For example, we open with a dramatic near-death scene in a Moscow theatre before flashing back to the main rural story – a trope that’s way overused these days and strikes me as indicating a lack of confidence in the material or the audience.
But, ultimately, The Seagull is a tasty celebration of the Russian spirit (as interpreted by Hollywood) – full of joy, humanity, reveling in its passions, but with a juicy undercurrent of bleak, nihilistic commentary on love, ambition, and desire.