The Seagull (2018) ☆☆(2/4): The flat, disappointing adaptation of a Chekhov play

“The Seagull”, the latest film adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s classic play, initially made me have some expectation. As watching a bunch of talented performers in the movie, I thought I could be entertained by their presence on the screen at least, so I became a bit relaxed even though I was not that familiar with Chekhov’s play, but, unfortunately, the movie did not engage me much despite their admirable effort, and I walked out of the screening room with hollow impressions growing on my mind.

After the opening scene which feels more unnecessary as I think more about it, the movie slowly establishes its story and characters at a country mansion during the summer of 1904. The country mansion in question belongs to an aging man named Pjotr Nikolayevich Sorin (Brian Dennehy), and he is pleased to see that his actress sister Irina Arkadina (Annette Bening) and her current lover Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), a successful middlebrow writer, are going to spend several days at his mansion. While Irina and Boris leisurely go through their afternoon at Sorin’s mansion, Konstantin Treplyov (Billy Howle), Irina’s aspiring playwright son who has lived with Sorin for years, prepares for the outdoor stage performance of his latest play along with his girlfriend Nina Zarechnaya (Saoirse Ronan), and she is surely ready to put her game efforts into his play even though she does not fully grasp his artistic vision.

However, things do not go well when Konstantin and Nina present their play in front of others including Sorin and Irina, who cannot help but become sarcastic about how symbolic and abstract her son’s play is. Quite irritated by his mother’s frequent comments on his play, Konstantin eventually aborts the performance to everyone’s disappointment, and he becomes sullen and depressed while also coming to envy Boris’ success more than before.

In the meantime, we get to know about other characters in the story. Dr. Dorn (Jon Tenney) frequently comes to the mansion as Sorin’s doctor, and we later come to learn that he has been very close to Polina (Mare Winningham), the wife of Sorin’s business manager Shamrayev (Glenn Fleshler). Polina and Shamrayev have a young daughter named Masha (Elisabeth Moss), and Masha has been constantly unhappy while not responding much to the sincere courtship of Mikhail (Michael Zegen), a local school teacher who keeps carrying a torch for her even after she confesses that she has been attracted to someone else.

As she becomes estranged from Konstantin after their failed stage performance, Nina finds herself somehow attracted to Boris, who may help her fulfill her dream of becoming a successful actress just like Irina. At one point, she and Boris spend some private time together on a nearby lake, and they come to feel more of the mutual attraction between them. When Konstantin senses what is going on between Boris and Nina, he naturally feels more hurt and conflicted, and that leads to a sudden shocking incident in the end.

While it is supposed to draw more attention from us around that point, the movie merely trudges along the plot without much narrative momentum. For instance, the crucial scenes during the second half of the movie are often deficient in emotional intensity, and director Michael Mayer’s plain storytelling approach only exacerbates this problem. As a result, we come to observe the characters in the film without much care or attention, and that is the main reason why the finale is not as devastating as intended.

As I became more bored and disappointed, I came to reflect more on the performers in the film. Annette Bening, who surely knows well how to play an aging but charming actress as shown from her Oscar-nominated performance in “Being Julia” (2004), naturally inhabits her role, and she occasionally shines as ably conveying her self-absorbed character’s humanity. While Corey Stoll, an engaging actor who has been more notable since his supporting role in the first season of TV series “House of Cards”, is effective in his smooth, debonair appearance, Elizabeth Moss, who has shown more of her talent since her supporting role in TV series “Mad Men”, and Saoirse Ronan, who recently impressed us again with her Oscar-nominated performance in “Lady Bird” (2017), are well-cast in their respective roles, and so is Billy Howle, who previously played the younger version of Jim Broadbent’s lead character in “The Sense of an Ending” (2017).

In case of the other substantial performers in the film, they are mostly under-utilized on the whole. While Glenn Fleshler, Joe Tenney and Michael Zegen dutifully fill their respective supporting roles, Brian Dennehy, a wonderful veteran actor who was always dependable in numerous films including “First Blood” (1982), does not have many things to do except looking old and fragile, and Mare Winningham, whom I still remember dearly for her gentle Oscar-nominated performance in “Georgia” (1995), is woefully wasted as only required to look perpetually worried.

Overall, “The Seagulls” is a flat, disappointing adaptation which could be better in many aspects, and I found myself frequently checking my watch during its 98-minute running time. Sure, it was often nice to see those good performers being together on the screen, but the movie sadly fails to generate enough interest among their performances, and now I am seriously considering watching a stage performance of Chekhov’s play someday.

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