Review: Chekhov’s 'The Seagull' fails to soar on the silver screen

Annette Bening and Jon Tenney

Annette Bening and Jon Tenney Photo by Walter McGrady, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

It’s pretty difficult to screw up a silver screen adaption of a classic play. The bones are already there. They’ve been fleshed out before.

Whether you play it straight or go for some 10 Things I Hate About You spin, you know the basic plot will do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. And yet too many times filmmakers get in the way of their own production and make a mediocre movie.

Take the latest adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. The tragicomic tale of multiple unrequited loves provides a rock-solid foundation for a feature film. Owing to this fact and its casting, The Seagull isn’t outright bad. But the direction, cinematography, and editing call so much attention to themselves that it becomes pretty obnoxious at times.

The movie starts with Act III of the play and then recalls the events of two years prior. This is the first sign of potential production trouble, and it becomes much worse when we revisit much of this section at the end of the movie, which runs only one hour and 38 minutes.

Moving into the past, the famous actress Irina (Annette Bening) has come to her brother’s (Brian Dennehy) country estate on vacation. Her son Konstantin (Billy Howle) is a young wannabe playwright who is madly in love with neighbor Nina (Saoirse Ronan). When Irina’s lover, Trigorin (Corey Stoll), and Nina start chatting, passions become inflamed and problems come to a head.

Tangential estate folk also factor into this weird love web. A school teacher (Michael Zegen) loves the estate manager’s daughter (Elisabeth Moss), who loves Konstantin who loves Nina who loves Trigorin who loves both Nina and Irina and finds himself torn. And for a story about unhappy relationships and existential Russian dread, it’s actually pretty humorous.

But we run into some other production issues along the journey. There are a few cases of odd blocking—done to convey some theatergoing vibe, presumably. But it’s disjointed, and in tandem with strange and unnecessary cuts, The Seagull comes off amateurish.

Fortunately the cast (though their performances taken as a whole are uneven) holds this thing together. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that any of the bigger names would bolster the production, but you never really know what you’re going to get with period pieces. Dennehy provides no small amount of laughs, while Bening runs the gamut of love, hate, pettiness, and scorn. Ronan does a fantastic job playing the youthful innocent and later a crestfallen spirit. But it’s Stoll who stands out here as Trigorin. He relates a kind of dread around celebrity and his own motivations that still manages to be funny, and his writerly worldview is put forth with fantastic objectivity.

Given the strengths here, it’s a shame The Seagull didn’t lean on its cast completely. A serviceable movie, it’s also a prime example of a picture where less would have been more.

The Seagull    
Director: Michael Mayer
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Saoirse Ronan, Annette Bening
Rated: PG-13
Theater: Now open, Uptown Theatre