Michael Mayer, “The Seagull” (2018)
Quite why this film adaptation of the famous play by Anton Chekhov couldn’t have been set in the United States in the late 19th or early 20th century, given that the entire cast speaks English with American accents, is strange but the performances are good enough that the notion of Russian characters speaking as they do in English quickly feels normal. As with the play, most of the action takes place in a summer mansion over several days, with the final act occurring two years later, starting off the film and then more or less repeating at the end so that the bulk of the action occurs as a flash-back. Haughty aristocratic actress Irina Arkadina (Annette Bening), a renowned stage performer whose career has seen better and increasingly more distant days, brings her latest lover, the writer Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), to her family’s summer house where reside her sickly and aged brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy) and her son Konstantin aka Kostya (Billy Howle), an aspiring playwright whose work is very experimental and highly symbolic. The mansion is managed by a couple, Ilya and Polina (Mare Winningham), whose daughter Masha (Elizabeth Moss) secretly loves Kostya, who is disdainful of her yearnings, as he is more interested in the girl who lives on the estate next door, Nina (Saoirse Ronan) who dreams of becoming a famous actress and who reciprocates Kostya’s affections. If this love triangle were not enough, viewers are treated to young school-teacher Semyon Medvedenko’s love for Masha while her mother Polina is having an affair with Dr Dorn (Jon Tenney).
The film essentially is a character study of a vain and manipulative woman who, for reasons never revealed, forces her son to live an isolated life on her family estate while she revels in fame and celebrity status on the Moscow theatre circuit. The plays she stars in are of a melodramatic kind, popular with the crowds for their superficiality, while Kostya yearns for theatrical renown of a more abstract and perhaps more lasting nature. Perhaps Irina is jealous that she and her world might be usurped by Kostya and the theatrical world he wants to write for, because this futuristic world reminds her of her mortality. As a result, when Kostya tries to stage an experimental play for Irina and her guests, she openly ridicules it and this sets up a tension lasting all the way through the film between mother and son. Torn between his love for his mother, who alternately dotes on him and abuses him, and his mother’s affection for Boris, Kostya weaves dangerously between anger, frustration, depression and suicidal thoughts. This in turn creates problems between him and Nina, while Masha secretly gets drunk to ease the pain of loving someone who will never love her. For her part, Nina becomes enthralled with Boris’ stories about how he copes with fame (which in fact he tells Nina to warn her of the downside of being a celebrity) and becomes infatuated with him. Boris for his part finds himself falling in love with Nina at the same time he still loves Irina.
All these entanglements may be hard for viewers to follow though with the screenplay chopping out large parts of the original play, a number of characters, notably Dr Dorn, become little more than walking wallpaper. Masha becomes a mere pitiable creature taking solace in alcohol and her relationship with Medvedenko becomes taken for granted rather than developed as it should have been as a counterpoint to Irina and Kostya’s own complicated love lives. Kostya and Trigorin come across as rather weak-willed men who don’t seem to learn from their errors or weaknesses, and as a result will always be at the mercy of others more cunning than they; Trigorin is lucky in navigating his affections with Irina and Nina, and one wonders whether he really would have preferred to stay with Nina had not Irina manipulated him into dumping the younger woman. (In Chekhov’s plays, so much of what we’d call action actually takes place away from the stage or between acts.) Kostya is not much more than a whining overgrown brat subject to banging out his temper tantrums on the piano or shooting birds from the sky. The stand-out performances are those of Bening as the wily mother and Ronan as Nina who learns the hard way that acting brings its own pressures and strains, and that fame and glory are fickle and cruel gods to those who do not have outstanding talent or the opportunities to prove their ability. Both Bening and Ronan give of their best but it is not enough to save the film from floundering with mostly one-dimensional characters lacking direction in their lives and who are content or resigned to floating in whichever direction the wind blows.
The clash between the old and the new; between popular if shallow trends in art and art created for its own sake or to interrogate issues that people would rather not discuss; between generations; and between the pursuit of fame and fortune on the one hand and on the other, the grim reality of persisting despite all odds, are all grist for the mill. Characters want to be happy but do not know how to pursue happiness, are afraid of pursuing it or do things that destroy their chances of being happy. A despondent, insular attitude follows the film like a bad smell: Kostya seems incapable of ever leaving the family estate while his mother is still alive and Nina resigns herself to travelling around the Russian empire acting in second-rate troupes for the bemusement of peasants and factory workers. Trigorin is destined to continue churning out fiction pap and acting as Irina’s handbag. Art itself continues to demand much from the various characters psychologically and physically until one person literally can’t take any more.
The isolated lake country setting is a major character in itself in the film but at the same time removes the action almost completely from Moscow, and from significant social, economic and political changes of the period it is set in, that would later sweep away the familiar world of Irina Arkadina and her household and her circle of friends and acquaintances. Indeed, it is this detachment from the real world of an increasingly industrialised Russia, class conflict, a stagnant polity and looming revolution that makes Arkadina and Sorin’s seemingly idyllic little lakeside mansion paradise – populated with flawed, passive characters of mediocre talent and obsessed with unattainable goals – at times stuffy and suffocating.