“What we need are new forms. And if we can’t have them, we’re better off with nothing.” So says Konstantin “Kostya” Treplev, the young would-be artist at the center of Anton Chekhov’s 1896 drama The Seagull. Neurotic, vain, self-loathing, and not entirely unsympathetic, Konstantin is a cringe-worthy enough figure onstage, where the audience has enough distance to take a clinical approach to him. But in the new film adaptation directed by Michael Mayer, the camera stays close on his face and that of his girlfriend, Nina, during their every moment of self-doubt. Add to it the director’s ability to immerse us fully in the world of a stiflingly hot estate outside Moscow, and the result is a Seagull which forces us to acknowledge the frustration of its characters without barriers or artifice.
A Doctor’s Analysis
The last of the great writers of Russia’s imperial period, Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) is famous for the psychological realism of his short stories and plays. In fact, the naturalistic acting methods that are now pervasive in film and TV were developed by the company that first staged his full-length dramas. But while Chekhov has developed a reputation for being grim and static, his plays are suffused with the humor of painfully awkward situations. Born into a family of alcoholic former serfs and putting himself through medical school, Chekhov had the good fortune of writing at a time when attempts to base fictional characters off medical science were all the rage among experimental authors. But Chekhov’s attitude toward the problems of rich people has always been a point of controversy for directors, even during the productions Chekhov had direct input on. “I’m in mourning for my life,” a black-clad teenager moans in The Seagull because her crush doesn’t return her affections, and the audience chuckles at her up until the moment she actually destroys her life.
Annette Bening Holds Court
Mayer, winner of a Tony Award for directing Spring Awakening, simply lets the feelings come forth naturally from his actors without judgement. Konstantin (Billy Howle) is the twenty-something son of popular actress Irina Arkadina (Annette Bening). She has always been distant and passive-aggressive toward him; he suspects it is because he is living proof her own youth is long past. Like her boyfriend, Trigorin (Corey Stoll), Konstantin loves writing; unlike Trigorin, he lacks self-confidence and depends on Irina’s charity. One day, he debuts a new, avant-garde play in a private performance starring Nina (Saoirse Ronan), his girlfriend from across the lake. His mother is unimpressed, Nina is embarrassed, and Konstantin pulls the curtain half-way through, but Trigorin sees in Nina his next conquest. Losing faith in Konstantin, Nina hopes Trigorin can be her gate to the larger, more glamorous world. She gets what she wants and it isn’t pretty.
Through rapid shifts in location possible with movie magic, Mayer establishes just what a black hole of attention Irina is. Bening’s performance is fascinating because Irina isn’t wrong to always regard herself as the most interesting person in the room. To the people who only see her for a few hours a week each summer, her company is a real treat. She has a cutting wit and despite Konstantin’s claim that her career is the epitome of melodramatic schlock, she easily quotes Shakespeare. But one by one, every character who encounters her regularly is driven mad or resigns themselves to being non-entities. Brian Dennehy plays her brother Sorin as basically an old dog in a sportscoat who does little but follow her around and huff at things.
Stifled Young People Tear Each Other Down
Billy Howle is a British stage and TV actor who most audience members will first be introduced to as Konstantin. He unselfconsciously sinks completely into his character’s extended adolescence. Konstantin is undeniably preceptive, sometimes charming, and often manipulative. Likewise, Saoirse Ronan captures Nina’s naivete, but where Konstantin is cerebral and increasingly erratic, Nina displays more potential for resilience and independence from the beginning. The seagull incident from which the story’s title comes provides Ronan with the only truly strong moment afforded to any of the actors. Corey Stoll’s casting as Trigorin puts a far darker spin on the character than is traditional. Since Stoll is much younger than the actors who typically take the role, Trigorin’s excuses for his behavior are all the emptier and Konstantin’s frustration that nobody else sees through him is more understandable. Elisabeth Moss plays Masha, the glum, sardonic young woman whose unrequited love for Konstantin and stormy relationship with her own parents and unwanted admirer ensure that there’s always conflict going on somewhere in the house.
The Seagull for Old Fans and New
Fans of Chekhov, and therefore almost all theatre people, will doubtlessly be excited for a new major film adaptation. The adapter, playwright Stephen Karam of The Humans and Sons of the Prophet, shares Chekhov’s knack for laughing unmaliciously at peoples’ absurdity while acknowledging the real pain their choices cause them. Mayer has taken advantage of the gorgeous images of a period piece without falling into the trap of romanticizing what is, ultimately, a very unhappy environment. The estate is a place someone can feel guilty about hating. For those who are new to The Seagull, the movie is a twisted little drama that uses its seductive aesthetic to sneak up on the viewer.
Director Michael Mayer
Screenplay Stephen Karam
Producers Tom Hulce, Leslie Urdang
Editor Annette Davey, ACE
All images courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis has lived in Chicago since 2014 when he started writing articles about theatre, opera, and dance for a number of review websites. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of modernist dramatic literature and criticism. While there, he interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham developing concepts for new dance pieces. His professional work includes developing the original jazz performance piece The Blues Ain’t a Color with Denise LaGrassa, which played at Theater Wit. He has also written promotional materials for theatre companies including Silk Road Rising.
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