×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Seagull’

Three strong female leads — Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, and Elisabeth Moss — are squandered on this busy, briskly paced Chekhov adaptation.

Director:
Michael Mayer
With:
Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Corey Stoll, Elisabeth Moss

Rated PG-13  1 hour 38 minutes

Why is it that in cinema, remakes are so often reviled, whereas in theater, each new production of a classic play brings a fresh wave of anticipation, as we wonder how the director and cast might choose to interpret the characters this time around, and thrill to the idea of watching the material brought to life again? That question is further complicated in the case of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” since no definitive big-screen adaptation of the 1896 play exists. Sadly, that will not change with the arrival of director Michael Mayer’s latest attempt, despite the tantalizing prospect of seeing actresses as great as Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, and Annette Bening in the three leading female roles.

Whether you know the play well or are experiencing it for the first time, you may well find yourself asking, What was Mayer hoping to achieve? Despite the gift of Chekhov’s words (as adapted by Stephen Karam) and a noteworthy cast (which also boasts “House of Cards” actor Corey Stoll as celebrated writer Tregorin), the play has been transformed into a whirling pinwheel of busy activity and swooping camera moves, brusquely cut and energetically scored to suggest a kind of urgency that’s entirely at odds with its setting, which remains the far-from-Moscow remove of a 19th-century Russian estate.

There, using the tired device of giving audiences a taste of the climax before jumping back in time (which means flashing upon the gathering that will be so rudely interrupted by a rifle blast at the end of the play, without introducing the gun — Chekhov’s gun — quite so early), Mayer assembles a cluster of characters who burn with unrequited love for one another. Masha (Moss) loves Konstantin (Billy Howle), an earnest young playwright with impossibly high standards. Konstantin loves Nina (Ronan, who co-stars with Howle to deeper ends in the upcoming “On Chesil Beach”), a rich local girl with dreams of becoming an actress. Nina loves Tregorin (Stoll), the toast of Moscow, whose success as a writer further inflames Konstantin’s jealousy. And Tregorin loves the attention, having shown up as little more than arm candy for Konstantin’s mother, Irina (Bening), a self-important old actress and supreme diva.

Watching Bening do what Bening does as Irina is arguably the greatest pleasure “The Seagull” has to offer, at least in this particular incarnation, as she peacocks around her wealthy brother Sorin’s rural estate (the old man is played by Brian Dennehy). Irina treats even her offstage moments as if she were performing for a packed house — which, of course, she is to some extent, considering that, whether on stage or screen, her character is grandstanding as much for the real-world audience as she is for her family’s benefit. She comes on big, but the role is written in such a way that Bening also gets to reveal the character’s fragile insecurity as the show goes on.

Contrast that with Nina’s overconfident inexperience — the young debutante believes she has the potential to be a great actress as well, despite an all-too-evident lack of ability — and you have the foundation for comedic cross-generational tension, especially as Tregorin turns his attention from the woman whose vanity he feeds (Irina) to the naive ingenue who plays neatly into his own. This dynamic is all the more delicious in that it gives Ronan (one of her generation’s most impressive talents) a chance to share her idea of bad acting in Konstantin’s conceptual theater piece — a dense, deliberately self-important play-within-the-play that is too jumpily presented to work effectively here (in Stanislavsky’s revolutionary staging, the actors were famously seated with their backs to the audience).

Romantic and family folderol aside, one of Chekhov’s sincerest themes in “The Seagull” concerns the seriousness of art and how easily the public can be fooled into falling for cheap, pandering melodrama instead — a subject the Russian playwright addressed in the spirit of laugh-out-loud comedy by setting his play amid a community of writers and actors, established and aspiring (it is, after all, a very funny show). Every director who has ever tackled “The Seagull” must wrestle with these meta issues, and though the humor remains in Mayer’s telling, it’s often lost amid the other distractions.

Mayer (who made his directing debut with the deeply felt “A Home at the End of the World”) has plenty of stage experience, but no one would accuse him of making this adaption feel too stuffy or theatrical. If anything, he has turned the very advantages that film offers as a medium — the ability to frame and focus the audience’s attention, the chance to compress/expand/repeat time, and that elusive sense of realism Chekhov pursued onstage throughout his career — against the play itself, upstaging the emotional truths and dramatic twists that really ought to be the focus, to the point that those unfamiliar with the source material might do well to read up on it before seeing this attention-deficit adaptation.

Reshuffling a number of well-known scenes, Mayer inexplicably bumps one of the play’s best-known lines (when asked why she always wears black, Masha replies, “I’m in mourning for my life”) from the opening scene to a seemingly random spot later on, encouraging Moss to further drown her melancholy in broadly pantomimed inebriation (which becomes a running joke). Among the adaptation’s other mysteries, adopting DP Matthew J. Lloyd’s aggressively handheld shooting style raises the question of why Mayer didn’t update the setting to a more modern milieu — the way recent adaptations “Hollywood Seagull” and “Days and Nights” did with America’s West and East coasts. In a sense, each new take on Chekhov sheds insight on the timelessness of the material, and yet, this one does more to reveal missed opportunities for the next team to explore.

Film Review: 'The Seagull'

Reviewed at Sony Studios, Los Angeles, April 12, 2018. (In Tribeca Film Festival — Spotlight Narrative.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 98 MIN.

Production: A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Laluchen Prod., Mar-Key Pictures, Artina Films production, in association with KGB Media. Producers: Tom Hulce, Leslie Urdang, Robert Salerno, Jay Franke, Davie Herro. Executive producers: Bingo Gubelmann, Benji Kohn, Noah Millman, Galt Niederhoffer, Miranda De Pencier, Matthew Masten, Margaret Skoglund, Stefan Sonnenfeld, Kelly E. Ashton, Ron Simons, Ira Pittelman.

Crew: Director, writer: Michael Mayer, based on the play by Anton Chekhov. Camera (color, widescreen): Matthew J. Lloyd. Editor: Annette Davey. Music: Nico Muhly, Anton Sanko.

With:

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

More Film

  • Kenneth Branagh's 'All Is True' Opening

    Kenneth Branagh's 'All Is True' Opening Palm Springs Film Festival

    The 30th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival will open on Jan. 3 with historical drama “All Is True,” starring Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, and Ian McKellen. Branagh, who will be in attendance at the opening night screening, directed from Ben Elton’s script about the little-known period in the final years of William Shakespeare. Branagh [...]

  • Actor and Activist Rodney Kageyama Dies

    Actor and Activist Rodney Kageyama Dies at 77

    Actor, activist and influentials member of the Japanese American community, Rodney Kageyama, died in his sleep Dec. 9. He was 77. The SAG member was known for roles in “Karate Kid IV” with Hillary Swank, Ron Howard’s film “Gung Ho” and the spinoff sitcom, and the TV movie “Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes” with Max [...]

  • Most Popular Films 2018: The Best

    9 Holiday Gift Ideas Inspired by This Year's Most Popular Films

    From superheroes to super nannies, 2018 was a year full of memorable characters — and memorable movies. Whether you’re a big film buff, an avid follower of a popular franchise, or have a couple movie fans in your life, here are nine gifts that capture the fun of some of this year’s biggest films. 1. [...]

  • Gravitas Ventures Acquires Irish Film ‘Lost

    Gravitas Ventures Acquires Irish Comedy ‘Lost & Found’

    Irish writer/director Liam O Mochain’s third feature film, “Lost & Found,” has been picked up by Gravitas Ventures for all rights worldwide, excluding Ireland, U.K., Australia and New Zealand. The film was recently acquired by Rialto Film Distribution for Australia and New Zealand, Film 4 and High Fliers for the U.K., and RTE TV in [...]

  • Nicole KidmanWarner Bros. Pictures World Premiere

    How James Wan Convinced Nicole Kidman to Star in 'Aquaman'

    While some actors dream of playing a superhero, that wasn’t the case for the cast of “Aquaman.” “I knew nothing about this,” Amber Heard, who plays Mera in the James Wan-directed action film, told Variety at the movie’s Los Angeles premiere. “I knew nothing about comic books in general. I didn’t know anything about this [...]

  • Anonymous Content Adds Meredith Rothman to

    Anonymous Content Adds Meredith Rothman to Management Division (EXCLUSIVE)

    Anonymous Content has added Meredith Rothman to its management division, Variety has learned. She joins the company from Mosaic, where she spent the last five years as a talent and literary manager. Rothman started her career working for casting director Francine Maisler and later worked as an assistant at Independent Talent Group in London. She [...]

  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

    Box Office: 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse' Could Tangle Up to $40 Million in Debut

    “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is dominating the domestic box office as it heads for up to $40 million in its opening weekend at 3,813 North American locations, early estimates showed on Friday. Clint Eastwood’s drug-runner drama “The Mule” should finish second with about $18 million at 2,558 venues, at the high end of expectations. MRC-Universal’s [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content