Caroline Morley reviews The Seagull, showing at Plymouth Arts Centre until this Thursday (tickets available here).
At one point in Stephen Karam’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, a forlorn, lovesick Masha (Elisabeth Moss) proclaims that unrequited love only happens in novels. And indeed, this new version of Chekhov’s play about the romantic entanglements and professional jealousies of a group of artists, aspirers, and acquaintances eschews realism for a dreamy, golden-tinged aura which leaves us in no doubt that we are watching a work of artful fiction.
Karam and director Michael Mayer display a lightness of touch and a sense of humour that keeps their adaptation on just the right side of farcical. And although this isn’t Mayer’s first foray into cinema – he is much better known for his substantial body of work on Broadway – he works hard to ensure that this is no piece of mere filmed theatre. He uses close-ups continuously to capture the stolen glances and wordless discourse that fuel the many interconnected love triangles of Chekhov’s play.
Mayer’s sweeping, luminous cinematography and lucious production design serve to soothe the eye with gorgeous vistas of The Seagull’s lakeside setting, but risk turning the film into something too accessible, too middlebrow, and too close to a Downton-esque costume drama for Chekhov purists. Fortunately his cast make the most of their close-ups to deliver uniformly outstanding performances, lifting the film from the faintly ridiculous to the sublime.
First among equals is the wonderful Annette Bening, as the aging actress Irina Arkadina, who spends summers visiting her estate on a lake outside Moscow. This time she arrives with her lover, Boris (Corey Stoll), a famous novelist. Waiting on her every imperious whim are her brother, Sorin (a wonderfully careworn Brian Dennehy) and her brittle, attention-starved son, Konstantin (Billy Howle) who writes symbolist plays and craves his mother’s approval.
Bening is clearly having a riot playing one of literature’s most narcissistic mothers, relishing her acerbic put-downs and unashamed attention seeking. But her performance is far from the one-dimensional caricature that it would be so easy for Irina to become. Bening finds the humanity in the fading star, insecure about losing her looks and desperately clinging to her younger lover in the face of romantic competition from the angelic Nina (Saoirse Ronan). In one tragically comedic scene she pulls the 28-year-old Masha in front of the amiable Doctor Dorn (Jon Tenney) and asks him to choose whom he thinks looks younger. The charming doctor is no fool and immediately responds “you are, of course.”
Bening’s Irina painfully hints at the desperate soul beneath the public mask, attempting to convince her family and friends, and maybe even herself, that her beauty and talent are at their peak. How deluded she truly is remains uncertain, but the hungriness with which she monitors her lover Boris’ responses to her flirtatious entreaties suggests a self-awareness of her own carefully-constructed persona. So dependent is she on the attentions of others that she cannot spare any of her own for her son, who yearns to be an avant-garde artist but cannot find the inspiration.
As the youthfully idealistic Konstantin, Billy Howle is enjoyably melodramatic and full of fervent love for his impoverished neighbour, Nina. But Nina is obsessed with Boris, who is slowly revealed to be perhaps the most feckless and fickle character in the pack. In an unimpeachable cast rounded out by Glenn Fleshler, Mare Winningham and Michael Zegen, Elizabeth Moss as the black-clad, vodka-swilling Masha is a delight. Moss’ exquisite comic timing makes Masha’s bitter love for Konstantin hilarious and heart-breaking in equal measure – her unkempt hair unravelling portentously as she stomps through her scenes hurling abuse at the lovelorn Mikhail (Michael Zegen) who hangs on her every tirade.
When we return to Chekhov’s lakeside retreat, two years after the stifling summer weekend during which most of the film takes place, the cosy comedy is gone. Sorin lies ailing and Irina has been summoned from Moscow for a final bedside vigil. Here the anguish and raw emotion missing from earlier parts of the film are poignantly crystallised in Nina’s return to Konstantin. Now a struggling actress, the romantic naivety of her previous self has been replaced by a sense of bitter betrayal and misery, which almost every character seems to share.
Mayer’s The Seagull is not the tour de force that its performances deserve, but his innovative shooting style and deft editing make it entertaining and insightful enough to be a worthy addition to the Chekovian repertoire. He wisely plays to the strengths of his cast, closing on Irina in a final display of Bening’s prowess, as she wordlessly conveys the slow, inescapable realisation of Konstantin’s fate.