I’d like to preface this review by saying that I have never read Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, the play this movie was adapted from – it is incredibly famous and recognized as a masterpiece, but prior to watching this movie I didn’t even know what it was about. I therefore absolutely cannot judge if this movie is a faithful adaptation of the play or not.
Now that this is out of the way, the short version of the plot goes something like this: in Russia, 1904, a group of people spend their week-end at a rich man’s estate, where new love blossom and unrequited feelings abound.
I wish I could keep it as simple, but a more complex description of the plot and characters is preferable, so brace yourself: Irina, Annette Bening (“American Beauty”, “The American President”), a very successful but aging actress, visits, as usual, her brother Sorin, Brian Dennehy (“First Blood”, “Cocoon”), whose health is deteriorating, in his beautiful and large estate.
Her son Konstantin, Billy Howle (“Dunkirk”, “Glue (TV)”) is a wannabe playwright who aims to shatter the conventions of theater; he puts on plays for his family to watch, helped by his lover Nina, Saoirse Ronan (“Lady Bird“, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”), a wannabe actress.
But when Irina brings with her Boris Trigorin, Corey Stoll (“Black Mass“, “Ant-Man“), her lover and very successful writer, Nina finds herself completely starstruck and both begin to develop feelings for one another. This causes Konstantin and Irina to be jealous, not only of this new love affair but of, respectively, Boris’ success and Nina’s youth.
In the midst of all this, there is Masha, Elisabeth Moss (“The Square“, “Mad To Be Normal“), the gloomy daughter of Sorin’s estate’s manager Shamrayev, Glenn Fleshler (“True Detective (TV)”, “Billions (TV)”) and his wife Polina, Mare Winningham (“Geostorm“, “Philomena”).
Masha is pursued by a schoolteacher named Medvendenko, Michael Zegen (“Frances Ha”, “Boardwalk Empire (TV)”) who she doesn’t care about, having only eyes for Konstantin despite knowing that her love is unrequited.
To add to these complicated relationships, Masha’s mother, Polina, is interested in doctor Dorn, Jon Tenney (“Tombstone”, “Beverly Hills Cop III”) who reciprocates some of her feelings but still isn’t over his past affair with Irina.
Brian Dennehy in The Seagull
The plot is far easier to follow on screen than to write down, thankfully. But while all the characters and the situations they face are incredibly intriguing and compelling on paper, they never become as captivating as they should be once on screen – on the contrary, most of the movie is dull, with the exceptions of a few scenes where the cast shines enough to make us feel something other than apathy and, ironically, make us realize how much the majority of the film is lacking in emotion and fails to engage us.
Indeed, despite an absolutely stellar cast, the direction, cinematography, editing, and probably the script as well, hinder the movie so much that the actors can’t entirely save it.
The cinematography is uninspired and the romantic settings (the beautiful lake, the woods, the mansion) are never used to their full potential; the camera-work and editing is sometimes so jarring that it breaks any immersion the viewer could have had, and keeps reminding us that we are indeed watching a cinematic adaptation of a work that should have been played on-stage.
The score is incredibly forgettable and even ill-fitting at times, as if it had been composed and inserted in some scenes only to avoid silences but with no higher purpose in mind.
Riddled with these problems, it is no surprise that the cast never gets to show their true talent. Annette Bening is probably the one who shines the most, making Irina a delightful character to laugh at and laugh with, and Elisabeth Moss is great enough to make Masha, a secondary character, leave an impression on the spectator’s mind despite her short screen time.
But the rest of the actors and actresses seem uninspired, and while they’re never bad, they never reach the quality we’re used to seeing from them.
I can’t say if director Michael Mayer (“Smash (TV)”, “Flicka”) failed to adapt Chekhov’s play, but I think that this isn’t a particularly well-made film no matter the original material and that every quality that should have come from an on-screen adaptation (beautiful cinematography, great use of the setting, interesting shots and camera-work) wasn’t present.
I spent the entirety of The Seagull wishing I was actually looking at the play – and I think that is probably what you should do instead of watching this adaptation.