UK Release Date: 7th September 2018
Runtime: 99 minutes
Director: Michael Mayer
Writer: Stephen Karam
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Annette Bening, Corey Stoll, Billy Howle, Elisabeth Moss, Brian Dennehy, Jon Tenney, Glenn Fleshler
Synopsis: Love triangles and betrayals befall a tangle of middle-class characters ensconced within a countryside retreat during an eventful summer.
There are some things that don’t sound like they’re going to create an engaging and unpretentious movie in 2018. All of those things converge for The Seagull, which is a new adaptation of a 19th century Russian play that has intertextual relationships to Shakespeare and contains much discussion about the state of the theatre. With that said, this new take on Chekhov from experienced theatre director Michael Mayer is a surprisingly enjoyable watch. A talented roster of actors coalesces to produce something that highlights the best of the material, focusing on the love, the lust and the withering putdowns.
The story focuses on a countryside retreat owned by the ageing curmudgeon Sorin (Brian Dennehy). He is being visited over the summer by his flamboyant actor sister Irina (Annette Bening), as well as her current beau – renowned writer Boris (Corey Stoll). Also along for the ride is Irina’s son Konstantin (Billy Howle), who is himself an aspiring playwright and has put together a production of his own with girlfriend Nina (Saoirse Ronan). When the performance goes badly, it sets in motion a chain of events that shakes the lives of all of the characters to their cores.
The Seagull would be nothing without its actors. Every role is cast to perfection and handed to an actor capable of amplifying everything that makes it great, from Bening’s whirlwind turn as a washed-up thespian to Elisabeth Moss quietly stealing all of her scenes as a vodka-swilling woman who wears black because she’s “in mourning for my life” and is afflicted by unrequited love. Saoirse Ronan, meanwhile, delivers another standout turn as the wide-eyed ingénue who falls under the spell of Stoll’s thoughtful creative type. It’s also interesting to note her very real romantic chemistry with Howle, with whom she previously showcased very little spark in the rather leaden On Chesil Beach.
It’s Ronan around whom the action swirls, as the Snow White to Bening’s vain queen, who does everything but ask her magic mirror whether she’s the fairest of them all. Bening relishes the ripe elements of the script, delivering snide heckles and snarky putdowns with malevolent aplomb. The Lady Bird star is up to the challenge and is genuinely believable as she expresses her desire for “real, resounding fame” and becomes increasingly besotted with, if not Stoll’s character, then the idea of him for sure. There’s a passion to her scenes with Stoll that shows the fine line between admiration and lust.
Mayer does little work to convey the need for this to be a movie rather than a theatrical production and indeed there are many scenes that feel slightly too stagey, despite the handsome landscapes and opulent lighting. However, the true delight here is the script and the minimal directorial flair feels like a calculated decision to allow these actors to fly, as if they’re all seagulls – albeit less tragic than those depicted in Chekhov’s story. Scenes turn on a sixpence from fine to fraught and all of the actors are equal to each other, sparring as if they are aware of the weight of the material and determined to give it all of the dramatic heft it deserves. For the most part, they succeed.
Pop or Poop?
The Seagull works terrifically, despite the well-worn material it’s adapting and the rather minimal efforts to transpose the material in a cinematic style. It succeeds almost solely as a result of its terrific performances, with every actor rising to meet that material and delivering their best work. The story itself is, of course, timeless and still holds deep emotional power even today.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.