THE SEAGULL. Starring: Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Corey Stoll, Billy Howie, Elisabeth Moss, Brian Dennehy, and Michael Zegen. Directed by Michael Mayer. Rated M (Mature themes). 98 min.
This American film is based on the play of the same name by Anton Chekhov that was first staged in Russia in 1896. It tells the story of a complex set of shifting relationships in which the various players fall in and out of love with each other. The seagull of the title is a symbol of a bird flying free, unencumbered by any human intervention.
In the film, a well-to-do, ageing actress Irina Arkadina (Annette Bening) travels to visit her older, ailing brother, Sorin (Brian Dennehy) who liveson his country estate with her insecure, playwright son, Konstantin (Billy Howie).
Irina brings with her a young lover, Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), who is a famous, well-established writer for the stage. Nina (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring actress from a neighbouring estate, is in a relationship with Konstantin, but is charmed by the urbanity and fame of Boris. She falls in love with him, and Boris by his nature basks in her adulation. Another woman, Masha (Elisabeth Moss), longs for Konstantin who is deeply in love with Nina. A schoolteacher (Michael Zegen) longs for Masha, who has drifted into alcoholism to cope with her frustrated love of Konstantin.
Complex psychological dynamics ebb and flow in the group. Irina brings her young lover to narcissistically boost her own importance. Konstantin’s artistic ambition renders him jealous of his mother and Boris, and Irina doesn’t respect her son - she is “willing to listen,” she says, “even to his ravings”. In this film, everybody loves someone who loves somebody else, and no one is unaffected by the forces of change. The film targets both humanity and heartbreak. All of the characters shift their loyalty, feelings of jealousy and belongingness, and physical desire, but the group is dominated by the personality of Irina. Irina is sensitive to what is happening around her, but she manipulates people and events in cruel and selfish ways.
All the characters in the film are unhappy, or unfulfilled people, caught in the tangled web of life. The comic and tragic nature of their lives is captured in the film by intelligent dramatic scripting. Though at times theatrical in its delivery, it derives real strength from the words of Chekhov, and each character is brought to life by a great acting performance.
The glue in the film that binds events together is provided by Irina who communicates her individuality with narcissistic force. Irina is a woman who ignores her son’s eagerness to win her acceptance, and callously monitors the behaviour of both Boris and Nina. She is cynically aware that her lover takes notes on people that he will later transform into characters on the theatre stage, and she knows that Boris will never be able to meet Nina’s needs. Annette Bening anchors the film with a forceful and impressive performance of great dramatic strength, as Irina.
At times, though, the camerawork lessens the impact that events might otherwise have. The film’s cinematography captures the picturesque nature of the country-lake estate, but the camera cuts in and out of scenes in a way that detracts from the urgency of the character’s dramatic interactions with each other. It swoops in on characters when Chekhov’s words should have been left to have their say. Nevertheless, this is a well-produced, very well-acted version of a classic Russian play that deserves to be seen. It holds its tension well, and it has a stellar cast.
The film’s themes are complex. They address human folly, the elusiveness of fame, the nature of art and artistic ambition, and the difficulty of living a purposeful life, and most of the themes are realised in a tragic, comic and melancholic way. Michael Mayer’s direction effectively dramatises Chekhov’s insights about the obsessiveness and complexity of human love, and the vagaries of artistic ambition. Nina, among others, is caught tragically by life’s pressures to seek artistic fulfilment - it is she who represents Chekhov’s seagull, and Saoirse Ronan shines in the role.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released October 4th., 2018