Rightfully regarded as a forefather of realist drama, Chekhov is seldom adapted for the screen successfully. His characters, like the plays they inhabit, are intricately complex. It takes highly skilled thespians to bring his work to life, though actors aren’t the sole variable necessary for such triumph: Chekhov also requires wise direction.
Behind the camera, esteemed Broadway director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening and Hedwig and the Angry Inch) confidently steers this topnotch ensemble with few missteps. The Seagull opens with applause, as illustrious actress Irina (Annette Bening) takes a bow. When she steps off stage, she receives some bad news. From here, the narrative jumps back in time to Irina visiting her elderly brother’s lavish country estate, with her lover Boris (Corey Stoll) in tow.
Boris is an acclaimed writer. Conversely, Irina’s son Konstantin (Billy Howle) is an anguished would-be playwright with unorthodox ideas whom almost no one, including Irina, takes seriously. As Irina and Boris arrive, Konstantin is constructing a makeshift outdoor theater in the woods. That night, his newest play, starring his paramour Nina (Saoirse Ronan), is met with ridicule.
The writing is dense, and Nina lacks both technique and presence. Irina loudly mocks it from the crowd, provoking her son to storm out in humiliation. Howle gives a splashy performance as the volatile Konstantin. On the ill-fated night of his botched debut, he pontificates that artists ought to “show life neither as it is, nor as it should be, but as we see it in our dreams.” The failure of his pretentious production, and his overblown reaction to it, is partly why Nina starts to gravitate toward Boris – and Konstantin’s ensuing envy further fuels his instability.
Howle’s performance is by far the most forceful, yet it works given the character’s spirited discontent. Konstantin’s fanatical affection for Nina compels him to shoot down an innocent bird and present it to her as a gift, a gesture she justifiably finds repulsive and confusing. One person who seems to genuinely understand Konstantin is Masha (Elizabeth Moss), who secretly yearns for him. She’s the daughter of the estate’s manager, and Konstantin wants nothing to do with her.
Doomed to wed a meager schoolteacher – and perpetually woeful about it – she spouts inflated things like “nobody knows how much I’m suffering” while pouring vodka into her tea, in plain view. Moss nails Chekhov’s dark sense of humor; her one-line quips are laugh out loud funny. When questioned about her drinking, she asserts that “a lot of women drink, just not as openly as I do.” Her never-ending despair borders on an adult adolescence, and it’s delightful.
Moss brings an odd charm to Masha’s angst and steels every scene she’s in. She also sets the tone early on when she pitifully declares that she’s “in mourning for my life,” as she longingly spies on her aloof Konstantin swimming in the nude. He’s truly all the poor thing thinks about.
Nina, on the other hand, has visions of fame. Ronan plays the bad actress with big dreams perfectly. She gazes upon framed posters of Irina’s bygone performances – in plays by Sophocles and Moliere – with wonder. Glory drives her; it’s what attracts her to Boris. Nina wants to be a star, and, in her mind, Boris is the real vehicle for that, not Konstantin.
Thus, Nina gushes over Boris when they meet. And the infatuation is instantly reciprocated, whether it’s due more to Nina’s coquettishness or because Boris is just thick is unclear at first. But Irina, sensing something between them, assures Nina that it’s nothing, that Boris simply “doesn’t know how to behave when people say nice things to him,” a legitimate character flaw that Irina slyly exploits.
Bening completely embodies the grand and animated Irina, lending her natural gravitas to a character who lives for applause – unable to even conceive of anyone else usurping her spotlight, even when in the audience of her own son’s premiere. Despite her selfish arrogance, Irina maintains an inexplicable likeability throughout the film. She goes from laughably trying to persuade people that she could convincingly play a fifteen-year-old on stage if given the chance to artfully manipulating those around her.
Masterfully portrayed by Bening, Irina proves herself an expert puppeteer of the human condition. She’s best when covert about it, though, especially when it comes to Boris. Egotistical Boris sees everyone and everything around him as inspiration for his next literary stroke of genius. His sole identity is writer; it’s the only thing about him anyone, including Boris, ever talks about. He compulsively carries around a tiny notebook in which he scribbles judgmental details about his estate mates like “needs a haircut” or “wildly jealous.”
A man possessed by storytelling, Boris needs to be read in order to be seen. Moreover, he needs to be celebrated. Admittedly, young women are the one character group he struggles with depicting authentically. So when Nina practically throws herself at him, he follows suit, so as to take copious notes. He also goes along because he’s beguiled by her beauty and naivety. Frequently cited as Chekhov’s most multifaceted male character, Stoll brilliantly breathes life into this callous, deeply insecure member of Russia’s literati.
The Seagull, like many works of theatre, is a completely character-driven narrative. It’s not heavy on plot at all. For this reason, stage to screen adaptations are regularly derided among professional moviegoers. Critics often evoke Nina’s “nothing happens…it’s all talk” complaint when bemoaning a story’s proper medium. And Mayer, for the most part, does in fact let his actors do the talking. Occasionally, however, the camera draws more attention to itself than it probably should, but that’s bound to happen when the cinematographer is fresh off the first season of Marvel’s Daredevil.
Condensed from its original four-act structure to a sharp 98 minutes, two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Stephen Karam chops up and rearranges the text in ways that may perturb some ardent drama purists. Regardless, The Seagull remains a superb examination of passion and rejection.