3 September 2018

Film Review - The Seagull (2018)

Anton Chekhov famously described his plays as comedies. But, as his work often features wealthy people languishing in rural Russia, suffering the tortures of unrequited love, it rather depends on your – and his – definition of comedy. The humour is there, certainly, but it’s not of the overt kind, more of a mixture of irony and tragi-comedy.

It’s a description that perfectly fits one of his most famous plays, The Seagull, which makes one of its few big screen appearances in a new adaptation under director Michael Mayer. Set on a country estate at the turn of the 20th century, it’s not so much a series of love – unrequited love, in the main – triangles as one big polygon d’amour. Successful, mature actress Irina (Annette Bening) arrives with her lover, author Boris (Corey Stoll) to visit her ailing brother, Sorin (Brian Dennehy). Her son, Konstantin (Billy Howle), also lives there, and is in love with local aspiring actress Nina (Saoirse Ronan). Except that the caretakers’ daughter, Masha (Elizabeth Moss) is in love with him and she’s the object of teacher Mikhail’s (Michael Zegan) constant affection. It all starts to unravel when Nina catches Boris’s eye and she falls passionately in love with him.

The cast is stellar and the performances are exactly as you would expect, sometimes more. They’re bookended by two of the finest screen actors of their generation, Bening and Ronan, yet they never share a scene together, more’s the pity. Bening’s actress is selfish, cruelly detached from a son who craves her attention and approval yet full of the insecurities that can afflict an older woman in relationship with a younger man. Ronan is as luminous as ever, fresh and irresistibly vibrant as the young Nina, shattered as the pitifully disillusioned older version of herself. And, as the man in between them, Corey Stoll shows he’s capable of much more than the tough action man roles he’s been saddled with of late.

As for the humour, it’s definitely there. It’s not necessarily of the laugh out loud variety, but the cast all capture the tone, that combination of world weary irony and the occasional word play that raises more than a few smiles. That’s not to overlook, however, the genuine pathos of those suffering the pangs of unrequited love, be it romantic or maternal. Elizabeth Moss in particular shines when it comes to this, a woman who knows that the object of her affection will never feel the same way and consoles herself in any way she can, even if it does nothing to ease her pain.

How you respond to The Seagull, however, is very much down to how you feel about Chekhov and, in truth, he’s not everybody’s cup of tea. If soul searching, ennui and romantic longings in a confined setting – and there are times, despite the expansive grounds of the estate, when the film looks very much stagebound – aren’t your thing, then you might find the verbal sparring and longing looks all a bit much. Nonetheless, Mayer keeps the film on the right side of the doldrums, thanks to brisk pacing and, of course, that wonderful cast.

Freda Cooper | ★★★ 1/2

Romance, Drama|USA, 2018|12A|7 September 2018 (UK)|Thunderbird Releasing|Dir: Michael Mayer|Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Corey Stoll, Billy Howle, Elizabeth Moss, Brian Dennehy.

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