Adap­ta­tion of The Seagull can’t find right tone

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - NEWS - CHRIS KNIGHT ck­night@postmedia.com @chrisknight­film

His­tory records that the open­ing-night per­for­mance of An­ton Chekhov’s The Seagull in 1896 was a dis­as­ter. So maybe there’s hope for this lat­est film adap­ta­tion, which fea­tures a stel­lar cast in an earth­bound pro­duc­tion.

Fame-wise, Saoirse Ro­nan and An­nette Ben­ing head the sprawl­ing drama­tis per­sonae. Ro­nan plays Nina, a young in­genue con­sid­er­ing a life on the stage but un­cer­tain if she has what it takes. Ben­ing is Irina, an ac­tress whose fame and beauty may be fad­ing, but not her ego. She’s con­vinced she could still play a teenager if given the chance.

There is a man in each woman’s life. Nina is in­fat­u­ated with Irina’s son Kon­stantin (Billy Howle), while Irina has a long­time re­la­tion­ship

with Boris (Corey Stoll), though that is threat­ened when Boris takes a shine to Nina.

Un­re­quited ro­mance is the ma­jor theme here. The melan­choly Masha (Elis­a­beth Moss) also longs for Kon­stantin but wants noth­ing to do with the school­teacher (Michael Ze­gen) who is clearly in­fat­u­ated with her. Irina’s ail­ing brother (Brian Den­nehy) is dis­ap­pointed that he never mar­ried. Even the ser­vants have their lusty de­sires.

There’s more than enough plot and act­ing tal­ent to go around, but direc­tor Michael Mayer, work­ing from an adap­ta­tion by screen­writer (and play­wright in his own right) Stephen Karam, can’t quite nail the tone. Are we in 19th-cen­tury Rus­sia, or just a fancy-dress ver­sion of it? Some of the dia­logue comes off as de­cid­edly mod­ern — “Want some?” Moss asks, of­fer­ing the snuff that is just one of her sub­stance ad­dic­tions, and Ben­ing refers to “spe­cial ef­fects” in her son’s play — while other scenes feel twee as they strive to recre­ate speech pat­terns of old.

Things come to a head at the bar­rel of a gun. (It’s Chekhov: What did you ex­pect?) Kon­stantin, jeal­ous and up­set over his mother’s crit­i­cism of his work, tries to take his own life. Ear­lier, he had gone hunt­ing for a bird — a grey speck­led metaphor, I think it was — which he presents to Nina as a grotesque gift.

It’s all very faith­ful to the play, which may iron­i­cally be one of its prob­lems. The Seagull may leave you want­ing to watch a live per­for­mance in­stead.

SONY PIC­TURES CLAS­SICS

Saoirse Ro­nan and Corey Stoll star in The Seagull, a film packed with tal­ent and plot, but un­able to find the right tone.

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