‘The Seagull’ does not exactly fly
Directed by: Michael Mayer
Written by: Stephen Karam (screenplay), Anton Chekhov (play)
Starring: Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, Corey Stoll, Billy Howle, Mare Winningham, and Brian Dennehy
“The Seagull” – “It’s hot. It’s quiet. No one does anything. Why does no one do anything?” – Irina (Annette Bening)
After experiencing “The Seagull”, a film adaption of Anton Chekhov’s play, one might ask Irina’s question about the movie itself. Sure, the A-list cast members - Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, Corey Stoll, Billy Howle, Brian Dennehy, and Mare Winningham – do something. More than something. They bring their acting A-games to director Michael Mayer’s picture, but the uninspired and sometimes muddy visuals match the pedestrian pacing, and the film feels like no one is actually doing a whole heck of a lot.
Moscow is a bustling city with millions of people engaging in an equal number of activities, but the film is set in the tranquil countryside outside Moscow (actually filmed in Upstate New York) at the turn of the 20th century. Irina, a terribly successful actress, travels from Russia’s biggest metropolis to her family’s estate where her brother Sorin (Dennehy) lives, and they host a number of friends and her son Konstantin (Howle) for some days of drinking, singing, reading, and relaxing. Lots of relaxing.
Within closed spaces, the characters converse - without any hint of Russian accents - about careers, lost dreams, family, and love.
Sibling love, romantic love and – most of all - unrequited love.
In fact, three characters truly have love for another, but their feelings are not reciprocated, so the film’s main themes paint despair for these individuals whose hearts are slightly tearing or flat out breaking.
Moss is perfectly cast as Masha, and her character suffers from terrible dismay, but in tragic and comedic ways. Masha always wears black, because the dark shade agrees with her disposition. Still, she feels completely unrestricted to explain her misery to anyone who sits down and begins a conversation with a simple hello. Moss – who was hilarious as an overlooked lover in 2017’s “The Square” – plays a lonely woman who is simply overlooked. Masha, however, carries a sarcastic plan to remedy her pain and plans on “tearing this love from her heart” by getting married.
Speaking of marriage or courtship, “The Seagull” looks and feels like a Jane Austen film. These types of period pieces center around courtships, ones that ever-so-briefly unfold - perhaps for a few minutes of screen time during a leisurely walk or a gentle boat ride - before undying love for the other is confessed. In this case, these said courtships transpire, but each potential relationship carries an air of doom rather than hope. There is nothing wrong with the chosen tone, but the narrative lacks playful nuances.
Actually, the movie feels like a Jane Austin B-movie.
Nearly the entire picture is set at the aforementioned estate, and despite ornate costumes and atmosphere, Mayer gives us very little visual pomp and circumstance to enjoy. The night scenes seem to only use natural candlelight, so Irina, Nina (Ronan), Konstantin, and the others promenade and saunter in and out of shadows.
During the daytime, seven or eight characters may assemble in the main room, converse and grumble, but without much celebration or movement. Several scenes do take place in the great outdoors, and although the lake and acres of deciduous trees are pleasing to the eye, the potential for spectacular, period piece filmmaking never materializes.
Now, “A Quiet Passion” (2017) – a story about Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) - was primarily set in one location too. The Dickinson family home. Every frame of that picture, however, visually pops and the ongoing runtime within the same bedrooms, living room, dining room, etc. does not elicit audience-ADD. Whether it was the script, Nixon’s extraordinary performance or writer/director Terence Davies’s aptitude with lighting and his camera, “A Quiet Passion” does not feel limited or claustrophobic. “The Seagull”, however, does.
Also, this film presents and then squanders two golden opportunities to step outside the estate to watch Irina perform, but instead of showcasing her talents inside a large, beautiful theatre, we only see very small glimpses of her work.
Tight budgets and the self-contained nature of adapted plays could be the reasons. Adapted play or not, movies are a visual medium and skillful filmmaking can help fill monetary voids and/or small sets. See also “Glengarry Glen Ross” (1992).
Still, the talented actors voice Chekhov’s and screenwriter Stephan Karam’s words with passion and vigor for 94 minutes, and these actors – especially Moss, Bening, Stoll, and Dennehy – offer a wonderful treat for those who appreciate ensembles in which words tied to close relationships matter. These characters have the potential to find love, and yes, “The Seagull” has the potential to be great. Unfortunately, that potential was lost somewhere during the film’s shoot. Sure, “The Seagull” does not lay around and do absolutely nothing, but it never flies either.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.