the seagull review

Put Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, and Corey Stoll in a room, and you’ve got yourself one of the most talented, charismatic rooms in Hollywood. It’s too bad that The SeagullMichael Mayer‘s plodding, histrionic adaptation of the Anton Chekhov play of the same name, puts that talent to waste.

Mayer and screenwriter Stephen Karam enthusiastically try to modernize an 1896 romantic drama that is steeped in the subtext and social environment of Chekov’s Russia. And while the camera swings with lively verve and the lush, picturesque setting lends a dreamy quality to the film, the many colorful characters are still stuck in a story that feels like it’s over 100 years old. At the end of the day, Bening and Ronan can only do so much, and The Seagull becomes a comedy of errors without the comedy.

The Seagull takes place during one serene summer at a Russian country estate, where the aging actress Irina Arkadina (Bening) is paying a visit to her brother Pjotr Nikolayevich Sorin (Brian Dennehy) and her son Konstantin (Billy Howle). For her latest visit, Irina brings along Boris Trigorin (Stoll), a minor celebrity in the literary world and her younger lover. Flitting through the estate are a host of quirky characters including Nina, an innocent neighbor girl who is in a relationship with Konstantin; Masha (Moss), the gloomy daughter of the estate manager Shamrayev (Glenn Fleshler) and his wife Polina (Mare Winningham); Mikhail (Michael Zegen), a smitten schoolteacher in love with Masha; and Dr. Dorn (Jon Tenney), the local physician who is having an affair with Polina and shares a past with Irina.

If that morass of names and criss-crossing relationships didn’t clue you in: there are about to be hundreds of love triangles in here. In the heat and boredom of summer, love will inevitably blossom. Unfortunately, everyone falls in love with the wrong person.

The kooky cast of characters get entangled in a web of affairs and unrequited love that could rival a Jane Austen novel. But The Seagull is aiming to be more than simply an irreverent romantic-comedy — it has something to say about art. The drama starts when Konstantin puts on a heavily symbolic play with Nina to impress his mother, only for her and the rest of the audience to laugh off his self-serious message about the universe, or something. Humiliated, Konstantin spends the rest of the film pouting and throwing jealous tantrums — mostly over Boris, who he considers his professional and romantic rival. Konstantin is the thorn in The Seagull‘s side, a frustratingly insipid character played by a charm-less Howle, who comes off like a bargain bin Eddie Redmayne. The movie’s clunky dialogue — which veers between perplexingly modern and strangely old-fashioned — feels the clumsiest coming from him.

The rest of the cast have to do a lot of heavy lifting to get around Howle’s uninspired performance, but thankfully, they’re more than up to the task. Bening, in particular, is the MVP of The Seagull. She is incredibly game to play the vain, deluded actress who silently seethes when her younger lover starts to eye a younger lover of his own in the enchanting Nina. Bening is entertaining to watch no matter what she does — whether she’s prancing in front of the aloof Masha or subtly manipulating Stoll’s weak-willed Boris. She even makes Howle slighty watchable in their scenes together, bringing his insecurities out in the open and finally giving him the semblance of a personality with a few delicately worded back-handed compliments.

If this were another, more satirically-minded film like Whit Stillman’s disarmingly smart Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship, Bening’s Irina would be the amoral centerpiece of this film, spouting progressive ideals while sneakily taking advantage of her lovers’ backwards views. Instead, Irina is simply the catalyst for the escalating series of tragedies that take hold in Konstantin and Nina’s lives, creating a ripple effect on the rest of the estate.

But Ronan, the other Oscar-nominated star of the film, doesn’t quite reach Bening’s heights in The Seagull. Ronan is usually so good in subtle and emotionally complex roles, but she struggles with a character who is no more than a vessel for the film’s themes of idealism, of love, of tragedy. She does her best with Nina, playing the ingenue with an effervescent grace, but can’t really deliver the powerful performance she’s capable of with a character who is so overwhelmingly flat.

Apart from Bening, Masha is a standout, played by Moss with a dry wit. She’s the droll comic relief, donning all black and a stoic demeanor, yet delivering the play’s iconic opening line, “I’m in mourning for my life,” with unchecked emotion. I also need to give props to Stoll and Zegen, who are remarkably charming in inherently unlikable characters. All three toe the line between ridiculous and real, a tone which The Seagull often has trouble balancing.

The Seagull falls somewhere in between Thomas Hardy’s ponderous romantic novel Far from the Madding Crowd and its cheeky modern reimagining, Tamara Drewe. Not quite old-fashioned, but not quite fresh. A few inspired cinematic choices — a roving camera, an unexpected book-ending of the fourth act — help to breathe life into a stodgy narrative. You could tell that Karam’s screenplay tries to modernize Chekov’s play while preserving the Russian-ness of it all, but most attempts at witty dialogue only drop like a stone at the bottom of a lake.

“There are spells cast by this lake,” Dr. Dorn muses as the various love affairs rise to the surface. If only The Seagull could cast such a spell on the audience.

Rating: 6 out of 10

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