Russian doctor Anton Chekhov is considered by many to be one of the most influential playwrights in history. But when "The Seagull" was first performed in October 1896, it was universally panned. Two years later, when the play was directed by Konstantin Stanislavsky, a legend in Russian theatre, the new production of "The Seagull" opened at the Moscow Art Theatre and was pronounced a resounding success.
An obvious period piece, "The Seagull" takes place at a splendid Russian estate situated on a serene lake. The estate/farm is owned by Sorin (Brian Dennehy), a retired government employee, and his sister, Irina (Annette Bening). She is a diva of the Moscow stage and embodies all of the "qualities" one would associate with someone so revered.
Irina's 20-year-old son, Konstantin (Billy Howle), grew up on the estate. He absolutely adores his mother despite the fact that she treats him with utter disdain. She is only concerned about her career and her much younger paramour, Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), whom she brings along on her weekend visit to the estate. She has been summoned due to the ill health of Sorin. Though relatively young, Trigorin has already achieved fame as the very successful author of short stories.
Konstantin has written his own play as a rejection of everything Irina and Boris represent. It's rather abstract, but it stars the pretty neighbor girl, Nina (Saoirse Ronan), with whom Konstantin is hopelessly in love. Nina dreams of becoming an actress and upon meeting Boris, sets her sights on him to help her achieve this goal.
Other residents of the estate include Masha (Elisabeth Moss), the alcohol-swilling daughter of the farm's manager, Shamrayev (Glenn Fleshler) and his wife, Polina (Mare Winningham). Masha is obsessed with Konstantin, who treats her so poorly that she, in turn, is incredibly cruel to Medvedenko (Michael Zegen), the local school teacher who is deeply in love with her. Rounding out this eclectic group is Dorn (Jon Tenney), the country doctor, who once had an affair with Irina, and pines for her still.
Chekhov was ahead of his time with this play. It's a tragicomedy which explores issues of love, relationships and art as they had never been before. Director Michael Mayer, a Tony-winner for "Spring Awakening" and producer Tom Hulce, who was an Academy Award nominee for portraying Mozart in "Amadeus", spent six years bringing "The Seagull" to the screen. They felt translating this story to film would enhance the experience exponentially.
They secured playwright Stephen Karam, a Tony Award-winning author, and incorporated their idea of beginning the movie with the end of the play. It was a gamble, but it works. "The Seagull" is a gorgeous adaptation of Chekhov's best-loved play. Bening, Ronan, Howle and the rest of the cast breathe new life into these long-established characters.
Bening, especially, is perfect playing the self-aggrandizing egotist, only concerned about herself. Her scene with Stoll when she begs him not to leave her is mesmerizing --- and completely Oscar-worthy. However, my only complaint with "The Seagull" is the casting of Stoll. I think he is a fine actor, but in my opinion, he is not the right choice for this role. Mayer wanted someone younger for Boris, but Stoll doesn't have the immense appeal one would associate with a charismatic author, able to seduce women on a whim.
Nonetheless, "The Seagull" is a cinematic achievement in beauty. The incredibly talented crew consisting of Matthew J. Lloyd, CSC, director of photography, Jane Musky, production designer, Ann Roth, costume designer, Nico Muhly and Anton Sanko, music and many others all contributed to this exquisite and entertaining version of "The Seagull".
Opinion: See It Now!
The ultra-prolific Russian writer Anton Chekhov was only 44 when he died in 1904, and although most of his works are short stories, he also conceived several major and enduring plays. One of them, "The Seagull", is now a superb film starring Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan and Elisabeth Moss.
The movie is essentially a story about entwined relationships and unrequited love, as some of the characters profess their desire for another who is either uninterested or otherwise unattainable. Tony Award-winning writer Stephen Karam adapted the screenplay, and he has weaved a spellbinding amalgam of human interaction that solidly flows in the movie's brief 98 minutes.
As Jeanne and I have written before, a film like "The Seagull" is not for the masses, but serious cinephiles will walk away very satisfied. Director Michael Mayer calls Chekhov's "The Seagull" a "game changer", a play that "marked the beginning of what we call modern drama".
Before the opening credits, the film presents a series of conversations among the characters which make little to no sense. However, fast forward two years later, and everything we saw in those first 10 minutes is satisfactorily explained.
This may very well be Bening's finest performance in an illustrious career. Her turn as Irina is decidedly part of the comic relief, but Irina is also a woman who achingly refuses to acknowledge her age. She is also a manipulative shrew who fails to support her son Konstantin (Billy Howle, "Dunkirk") as a playwright himself, to the point where he attempts suicide. Howle is a talent to watch.
Part of Irina's disdain for her son lies in her fear of growing old and her relationship with a much-younger Boris (Corey Stoll), an acclaimed author of short stories. Meanwhile, Konstantin is madly in love with Nina (Ronan), and she returns his admiration --- for a while. When Nina's feelings stray towards Boris, the story gets very interesting.
The part of Boris for Stoll is more of a lead than his usual supporting roles. I was only slightly aware of his age difference compared to Bening, but not enough to lose any credibility in the story.
Moss is convincing as Masha, who drinks heavily and uses snuff to cope with her extreme unhappiness. And Ronan keeps getting better with each new role. I would say she's a revelation, but she's now 24 and a veteran of critically acclaimed films. Other stalwarts in the cast include Brian Dennehy as Irina's never-married brother Sorin, and Mare Winningham as Polina, the mother of Masha.
When Bening signed on to do the film, the rest of the cast fell into place. And appropriately, this is clearly her movie. From the range of emotions she displays, to her final haunted look as the movie fades to black, Bening is utterly memorable.
Opinion: See It Now!
Postscript: this has nothing to do with "The Seagull", but I couldn't resist including it here. Chekhov is credited with the following quotation which really resonates today: "Love, friendship, respect, do not unite people as much as a common hatred of something".