The film stars Annette Bening as the actress Irina Arkadina
Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull is so quintessentially theatrical — a play constructed from drawing room conversations and a sprawling cast of lovesick characters — that some critics might be unwilling to accept any adaptation that attempts to fold it into a film.
Fortunately, I am not one of those critics.
Directed by Michael Mayer, with a screenplay from Stephen Karam (whose play The Humans won a 2016 Tony), The Seagull is lush and dreamlike, leaving the drawing room for lake, field, and forest. Though we lose some of Chekhov’s claustrophobic talkiness, the dense poetry of his language, Mayer fully captures Chekhov’s sharp humor. (“I’m in mourning,” Elizabeth Moss’ Masha says when asked why she always wears black. “For my life.”)
For the uninitiated, The Seagull takes place at the summer estate of Sorin (Brian Dennehy), where a bevy of guests arrive: There’s Mikhail (Michael Zegen), a poor teacher who’s in love with Masha, who’s in love with Konstantin (Billy Howle), who’s in love with Nina (Saoirse Ronan), a neighbor girl who’s in love with the famous writer Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), who’s the lover of Irina Arkadina (Annette Bening), who’s only in love with herself.
The true magic of the film lies in its performances. Bening is the best she’s ever been as the vain, aging stage actress, with a perfectly naïve Ronan as Nina just discovering her sexual power. If nothing else, this adaptation will be a master class for college theater students rehearsing their scenes — every single actor dazzles in their role. Moss is laugh-out-loud funny, granted the best one-liners as the depressed Masha; Stoll is the perfect combination of smug and insecure; Howle (who also costars with Ronan in the upcoming On Chesil Beach) pouts and pontificates like a boy Hamlet who only grows up when it’s too late.
Of course, The Seagull is a lengthy work, and even with cuts the film drags slightly in the middle, especially to those who know how many acts are left to go. Even so, it would be worth watching the film for Bening’s performance alone, as an hour-and-a-half actor showcase. To Mayer’s credit, the film never feels like a filmed stage production; it’s dynamic and unstuffy, beautifully shot and wonderfully accessible. If you don’t think a movie version of The Seagull is sacrilege, this is the movie version to see. A-