Director: Michael Mayer
Screenwriter: Stephen Karan, based on the play by Anton Chekhov
Runtime: 98 mins.
Australian release date: 4 October 2018
Previewed at: Sony Pictures Theatrette, Sydney, on 17 September 2018.
For the latest film version of Anton Chekhov’s famous play The Seagull, set on a country estate in 19th century Russia (and, in a case of art imitating life, actually filmed at an estate in upstate New York that is owned by Russian émigrés), the Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer has gathered an exceptional ensemble cast for this drama about people being in love with the wrong person. It’s a kind of literary soap-opera in which everybody loves somebody who loves somebody else, except for the aging actress Irina, who loves only herself. The story concentrates on a group of characters trapped in a hothouse atmosphere and shows how their emotions intertwine and interconnect, leading to dissatisfaction all round. The play has been adapted for theatre and cinema repeatedly since its premiere in 1896, and film versions have been made in Russian, French, English of course, and even Afrikaans. It is, in the very true sense of the word, a classic.
The famed but very vain actress, Irina Arkadina (Annette Bening), arrives at her brother Sorin’s (Brian Dennehy) country home for the weekend, accompanied by her younger lover, Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), a successful writer. Irina’s son Konstantin (Billy Howle), a budding playwright who lives on the property, is madly in love with local lass Nina (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring actress, but she soon develops a passion for Trigorin. Meanwhile Masha (Elizabeth Moss), the daughter of the estate’s manager Shamrayev (Glenn Fleshner) and his wife Polina (Mare Winningham), is in love with Konstantin and ignores the local school teacher, Medvedenko (Michael Zegen), who is besotted with her. To add to the confusion, Polina loves the district doctor, Dorn (Jon Tenney), but he’s still got the hots for Irina with whom he’d had an affair many years ago. Confused? Don’t be - this incredible ensemble cast make it all quite clear.
Bening holds court as the aging diva who has a fractious relationship with almost everyone, including her lover. Worry is etched on her face as she examines her wrinkles in the mirror but her self-belief is a force to be reckoned with and she refuses to acknowledge that her career, and her sex appeal, might be approaching their end. The other women all manifest their insecurities in various ways as the desire for their love to be requited is constantly dashed: Masha especially, who reaches for the vodka bottle to help her deal with rejection; Nina uses flattery to try to win over Trigorin; Polina just gets moody and mopes. The men all seem to be a bit weak and muddle-headed, too: Trigorin is flattered by the attention he receives from Nina but pretends he’s above it all, at least initially; Konstantin goes to pieces as Nina begins to avoid him; Medvedenko, at least, is constant in his dogged pursuit of Masha; and Dorn attempts to be philosophical about the whole shebang.
Mayer explains that, “The Seagull was a game-changer. You would be hard-pressed to find a drama scholar today who doesn’t think that it marked the beginning of what we call modern drama. No one had ever attempted this kind of psychological naturalism. It was a new way of showing behaviour that seems very contemporary to an audience now.” Up until then the style of acting utilised in the theatre was highly melodramatic and marked by big flourishes, signalling to the audience how they were expected to respond. Chekhov’s smashing of that tradition was so shocking that the play’s premiere was openly mocked and deemed a critical failure. It was only later that it was recognised as ground-breaking.
Co-producer Leslie Urdang adds that the reason for the play’s longevity is because, “Every character is beautiful and at the same time has something that is broken or that is unfulfilled. I think the yearning for love, yearning for connection, yearning for immortality, trying to figure out what it means to live a full life - these are central questions for human beings. The Seagull doesn’t necessarily give answers but it asks the question… ‘How do we live our lives?’”