The Seagull: Chekhov in a context-free vacuum suffocates its fine actors

By Liam Lacey

Rating: C-plus

“It is life itself onstage,” wrote the Russian lawyer Anatoly Koni to Anton Chekhov, of The Seagull, “with all its tragic alliances, eloquent thoughtlessness and silent sufferings — the sort of everyday life that is accessible to everyone and understood in its cruel internal irony by almost no one.”

In director Michael Mayer’s film, adapted by playwright Stephen Karam (Sons of the Prophet, The Humans), an impressive cast gets a run at this century-old dramatic classic with mediocre results. 

Even onstage, where it was built to be performed, The Seagull is challenging, a modern old-fashioned play, where productions struggle to find the Chekhovian tone — a mixture of artifice and sincerity, bitter-sweetness, and tragic-comedy. The play includes elements of the conventional — a summerhouse gathering with lovers at cross purposes, writers and actors offering observations on art and ambition — but with a modern sense of characters struggling with their self-deceptions and absence of meaning.

Annette Bening as the aging diva Irina in the film adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull

Annette Bening as the aging diva Irina in the film adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull

Chekhov called it a comedy though nearly all the characters go from bad to worse. They include a vain past-her-prime actress, Irina Arkadina (Annette Bening), who spends her spare time at the country estate of her brother, Soren (Brian Dennehy), a man who complains about how he never did anything with his life. 

Almost everyone is enamoured with the wrong person. Irina’s latest man-toy is Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), a famous but mediocre writer.  He’s resented by Irina’s Konstantin (Billy Howle)  her suicidal would-be playwright. He’s in love with Nina (Saoirse Ronan) the young aspiring actress. Masha (Elizabeth Moss), the doleful daughter of the estate manager, is obsessed with Konstatin, who doesn’t care for her. She, in turn, is trailed by the grovelling, impoverished  local schoolteacher, Medvedenko (Michael Zegen). Only the equanimous Dr. Dorn (Jon Tenney), a former local roué, now manages to seem to be above the fray.

In an effort to shake things up cinematically, director Mayer and screenwriter Karam  break up Chekhov's chronology, trimmed dialogue and, begin near the play’s climax, two years after the initial action. The strategy is unhelpful: Much of the play’s finale simply gets repeated at the end of the movie, which is boring.  Mayer (A Home at the End of the World), who is mostly known for his stage work, is a needlessly busy director, with the camera zooming in on faces, watching characters from a distance and all but yelling, “Look — no stage!” 

Well, there’s the cast and the acting, isn’t there?  Reviews of The Seagull invariably focus on the performance of the flamboyant Irina, the self-loving actress, and Bening, fulfils all expectations. She’s vivacious, insecure, cruel, the full diva a la House of Cards, and a great find. Stoll,  makes for a refreshing Trigorin, the writer who decides to pluck Nina away to Moscow for his own amusement. Stoll underplays the role, conveying Trigorin’s glib entitlement with a sweaty greed.  Moss, as the original emo girl, Masha (“I’m in mourning for my life”) delivers her lines with a tart snap, though doesn’t bring much new to the role. Ronan, no surprise, is a radiant ingenue, but she’s somewhat scattered in her later scenes as the disillusioned young actress. The odd man out here is Konstantin. Billy Howle is both eclipsed by the star presence around him, and his character’s limiting monomania.

In the end, though, while there are no weak performances here, the cast is working in a vacuum of context.  The Seagull, a movie about characters without a sense of purpose, suffers from the same problem.

The Seagull. Directed by Michael, adapted by Stephen Karam from the play by Anton Chekhov. Starring:  Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Corey Stoll, Elisabeth Moss,  Jon Tenney,, Billy Howle and Brian Dennehy. The Seagull shows at the Cineplex Odeon Varsity Cinema.