The definitive version of Anton Chekhov’s play arrives, starring Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, and Elisabeth Moss.
Michael Mayer’s The Seagull is the attempt by Sony Pictures Classics to possess a definitive filmed version of the Chekhov play of the same name. This is an archaic goal—in the streaming age, there are no VHS tapes to play on the drama department’s black TV—but they succeed at it nobly nonetheless. Competition is not particularly stiff: Sidney Lumet’s differently-spaced 1968 movie, The Sea Gull stars Vanessa Redgrave but is an unwatchable two-hour-plus slog and notable Soviet and French adaptations (1972’s Chayka and 2003’s Little Lili) are hard to find and little watched in their homelands or here. A more recent creation is Christian Camargo’s Days and Nights, a modernized retelling that stars Katie Holmes and William Hurt relocated to the commutable New England that boasts a healthy 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Filmed over a few weeks in upstate New York in mid-2015 and starring similarly bankable names like Annette Bening and Saoirse Ronan, this latest Seagull finally floats to the surface after being subsumed by years of frost. It’s sunny now and snow is but a memory. Mayer’s The Seagull is like the summer air before it becomes too hot, light everywhere and you can feel it.
Nina Zarechnaya (Ronan) is an aspiring actress who lives inside this light, and her soul sparks it aflame on cloudy nights. This dooms those who love her: first the failed writer Konstantin Treplyov (Billy Howle) and then the successful one Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll, back to playing a writer sans impressive wigwork.) He is Chekhov’s stand-in, a desperate philanderer and those who say that Chekhov writes no villains forgets how often Chekhov writes himself. Konstantin and Boris are also dueling forces of artistic compromise; Konstantin tormented by a desire to express himself in new forms and Boris yearning to express none in any. Nina wants to act and these debates are uninteresting to her, perhaps even to Chekhov.
Two frustrated romantic love triangles float around her like lightning bugs after the sun goes down: Masha (Elisabeth Moss), the daughter of the estate manager, is in love with Konstantin, and Irina Arkadina (Annette Bening) is an older actress in love with Boris. This is where the soul of the play often lies as Masha and Irina hold the play’s best lines and its most fully-formed characters. Anyone yearning to see Ronan romantically pair with the minor British actor playing Konstantin would do better to catch Dominic Cooke’s On Chesil Beach, which is also out this month and stars the pair in a far richer and failed relationship. The Seagull belongs instead to Bening, who steals every scene, ensconced in velvet and dying happily of the vanity Chekhov curses her. She finds inside it a character we know well, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, Jenna Maroney in 30 Rock.
Chekhov self-consciously categorized The Seagull as a comedy, a choice most critics don’t understand and often choose to mean as something else. Mayer’s casting of Moss, at that time still remembered as the keeper of Mad Men’s zingers, suggests he does. Her delivery of the play’s opening joke, Masha’s “I’m in mourning…for my life,” both sets the audience at ease with it’s eye-roll and laces The Seagull with its darkest and most self-aware subtext. Michael Zegen, an unsatisfying husband in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, appears as Mikhail, the unsatisfying schoolteacher that Masha will settle for. Her turn to comically enunciated alcoholism to escape this is both the source of more of Chekhov’s quotable wit (“Women drink more often than you think.”) and another dark underbelly of common life unearthed.
Mayer and screenwriter Stephen Karam are themselves poets of this kind of ordinary life, their interest in everyday gesture filtered through Broadway’s historic interest in campy Steinbeck-isms. Karem is most known for 2016’s depressing smash The Humans and Mayer can be remembered as the soul who brought Green Day’s American Idiot to the stage. He creates characters startled by the events of their own lives, who are not fatalistic but suffer fate. When Mayer first turned to movie directing, he made an indie called A Home at the End of the World, which remains home to the best against-type Colin Farrell performance in existence simply because of how risky carrying the weight of Farrell’s intimacy feels. In Bruges has nothing on it.
In The Seagull, Mayer boldly risks the boredom of anyone turned off by period pieces without war heroes (why else don such uncomfortable pants if not to die in them) and the anger of Chekhov purists, relieved to see the horse and buggy but dismayed to not find Boris’s monologue exactly how they left it. The history of beloved Chekhov adaptations is of ruthless detachment, such as Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street or Akimi Yoshida’s manga series Sakura no Sono. These works establish spaces where the original can be selectively patched together into a whole that eludes direct comparison to the staged product which normally keeps to the plot. Mayer ambitiously resists these clichés. In a trailer released in March, a hammed-out narrator zips and zaps from the faces of these celebrities, daring us to laugh.
Lush with the colors of a long hot summer, The Seagull finds beauty inside its new form, the fantasy that eludes Konstantin. In the movie’s most radical gesture, Karam’s script cuts up the play’s final act—which takes place two years after the main events—playing some of it as a prologue. This changes the effect of the movie, making its contents feel like the memory of a lost, Edenic time of innocence. (Mayer has said that Karam was haunted by a production he had seen that did the same; the effect in Mayer’s movie is also that of drawing a shadow over us.) The Seagull becomes less the conversational set piece that has illuminated stages for over a century and becomes, instead, a dream that its characters plead to remain asleep in.
Nina and Boris wait to kiss like they can only do in the movies. A permanent glow effuses behind her head, asserting angelic innocence and naïveté. Mayer relies on quickly moving tracking shots to give us the breadth of this world that never feels small, as filmed plays tend to feel. Konstantin can run in the woods, feel free and shoot his seagull and it looks like the woods will never end. Nina complains that he can only speak in symbols. But what other language do we have?