The Seagull


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Annette Bening as Irina and Jon Tenney as Doctor Dorn in The Seagull
"Michael Mayer's reframing of the action puts more emphasis on the female characters and, in so doing, helps to bring out its more contemporary aspects." | Photo: Abbott Genser

Art flourishes within constraints, they say. Love does something similar in Anton Chekhov's celebrated play, with lack of opportunity seemingly a potent factor in the decisions and obsessions of a small group of creative artists and their relatives on an isolated country estate. Expanding this to the screen, then was always a risky proposition; even the move from drawing rooms and studies into the surrounding fields and across the lake blamed for these passions threatens to break the spell. At liberty, The Seagull might go anywhere, or tumble to its doom. It is to the credit of its accomplished cast that it does not.

Traditionally, the coveted role in the play has been that of the writer Boris Trigorin, played here by Corey Stoll, but director Michael Mayer's reframing of the action puts more emphasis on the female characters and, in so doing, helps to bring out its more contemporary aspects - as well as contextualising some longstanding issues with male behaviour that have recently been treated like a new phenomenon. Annette Bening takes the lead in the plum role of Irina, the ageing actress whose vanity as as glorious as it is ridiculous and who is all too aware of her vulnerability. Elisabeth Moss is a standout as Masha, making her small role much more prominent, the woman on the brink of compromising on marriage to a man she doesn't love whilst she yearns for another. And Saoirse Ronan brings depth and integrity to the role of wide-eyed ingenue Nina, the young woman prized as an object whose struggle toward actualisation lies at the centre of the narrative.

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If there's a weak link, it's Billy Howle's Konstantin. Most modern viewers will lack the natural sympathy for this troubled young man that once balanced out the jaded observations of his elders. The world is no longer a welcoming place to men who make grand gestures over unrequited love and present the women they've latched onto with dead birds. Though Howle works hard, there is only so much he can do about this. The focus on his professional envy of Trigorin - a precursor to more personal resentment - has been pared down a little too much in favour of romantic and comedic strands. Bening's work, however, helps to maintain the story's tragic aspects despite this. Still, for his part, plays Trigorin with a light touch that lets us see his humanity rather than focusing (as Irina does) on the predictable elements of his behaviour.

Mayer's film is beautifully lit in a manner which adds to the ambience of both internal and external landscapes and to the sense of period. It's particularly important during the performance of Konstantin's play, where it adds a sense of the magic of the theatre no less powerful for being presented in cinema (and harking back to a similar scene with Ronan in her breakthrough film Atonement). A number of theatrical flourishes take the story back to its roots and maintain the network of ironies drawn from its subject matter. Magnificently detailed sets and costumes add to the effect. If you never get the chance to see The Seagull on the stage, this is a worthy compromise.

Reviewed on: 11 May 2018
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The Seagull packshot
A love triangle unfolds between the legendary diva Irina, her lover Boris, and the ingénue Nina.
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Director: Michael Mayer

Writer: Stephen Karam, based on the play by Anton Chekhov

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, Annette Bening, Michael Zegen, Brian Dennehy, Corey Stoll, Billy Howle, Glenn Fleshler, Mare Winningham, Jon Tenney, Ben Thompson, Barbara Tirrell, Thomas Hettrick, Paul Krisikos

Year: 2018

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: US


Tribeca 2018

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