What happens when you truncate a classic in both narrative and spirit? In the case of Michael Mayer’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, the result is a rather meddlesome inertia. One of the foundational pieces for the modern global theatre, Chekhov’s play has resonated throughout the past century for its depth in depicting the ultimately tragic myopias of its large ensemble of characters. While this version is often lovely, it’s more of a revisit than a fresh take.
This adaptation is scripted by Tony winning playwright Stephen Karam and gifted with well-cast powerhouses like Annette Bening as the vain aging actress Irina and Saoirse Ronan as the young ingenue dreamer Nina. Irina is the epicenter of this group of theatre types and creatives, descending upon a large country house between stage seasons. Irina brings in tow her younger lover Trigorin (Corey Stoll) and her broodingly self-serious son Konstantin (Billy Howle). When Nina’s affections fall for the glow of Trigorin’s success over Konstantin’s morbidity, there’s a reckoning for all involved. Or perhaps, in their cyclical habits, none at all.
What the film does quite well is present a large ensemble that is connected and alive in a way that is true to Chekhov’s insightful text. But seldom does it know what to do with them beyond letting them roam. Mayer stumbles through Chekhov’s vibrant meanderings, turning the dense text into a sort of mildly pleasant mishegoss. That lack of vision also results in a trimmed text and scattered composition that holds the film back from being as satisfying as it could be. It’s competent instead of passionate, making for an easily digested take that never hooks you. Its frustratingly close to simply clicking into place.
Bening’s performance is the fitting center of gravity. When she is given center stage (for Irina certainly believes her life is one), the movie finds its footing and an access point to thrust the narrative. Her Irina is too emotionally illiterate to comprehend anyone else’s needs, making the role’s inherent comedy and tragedy shine with the specificity that the film mostly lacks due to its bounding clip. It’s a graceful performance that allows you to forget the feeling of the film lacking verve.
Elsewhere the right angles of The Seagull’s love triangles bring mixed results. With the film overly hellbent on brevity, Nina’s sad end is both unsatisfying and merely her own without signifying much of Chekhov’s intended larger context – ultimately downplaying Ronan’s deeply felt performance in doing so. As the Konstantin-obsessed Masha, Elizabeth Moss is a disconnected player, off-key to an otherwise cohesive ensemble. While Stoll brings Trigorin’s willful self-delusion to the forefront, Howle’s petulant Konstantin is a vague sadsack. It’s a cast with plenty of breathing room to delight us, but little vision to impress us.
There is a palpable lack of ambition at play, and a little more creative influence could have brought some wind into the rehash. Yet the film is an inoffensive and forgivable attempt at the classic by its mere existence – Chekhov’s vibrancy remains tough to stifle, no matter the tepid rendering.