Adaptation of The Seagull can’t find right tone
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.
Saoirse Ronan and Corey Stoll star in The Seagull, a film packed with talent and plot, but unable to find the right tone.