2018 Tribeca Film Festival Review: Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’ Starring Annette Bening, Corey Stoll, Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, Mare Winningham
Michael Mayer’s valiant attempt to bring a freshness to The Seagull with a script based on Anton Chekhov’s titular work by Stephen Karam (Tony winner of The Humans-2016) shines for a myriad of reasons. Yes, many critics dunned it or found that it fell short of its monumental task to bring Anton Chekhov’s four act, three hour play to the screen. Indeed, Chekhov is not easy and the script has been paired to emphasize the humor and highlight the salient speeches and actions, leaving the more unwieldy dialogue behind.
At its first time out in 1895, The Seagull flopped. The play requires superb acting and directing so that the ponderous tones are submerged and the comedy comes to the fore. I have seen a number of productions that left me with a yawn and a nod. Not so for this film. Forgive me fellow sojourners with a critical eye. My pen is blunted from razor sharp barbs directed to slice into this fine feature which made its World Premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.
Mayer brings the action into the breathtaking settings of the lake and environs of the estate. He carries this striking beauty into his grand and lush interiors signifying the wealth and class status of the Pjotr Nikolayevich Sorin estate. Sorin (Brian Dennehy) is Irina’s (Annette Bening) brother. Interior and exterior settings are visually stunning. Against this gorgeousness Mayer unleashes the characters foibles and tragedies. The irony that luxury and the exquisite beauty of things has little power over emotions thematically resonates throughout. The principals’ (Irina-Bening, Trigorin-Corey Stoll, Nina-Saoirse Ronan, Masha-Elisabeth Moss, Konstantin-Billy Howle) interactions form the meat of the drama which ends in tragedy. None of the characters appear to be self-aware (Trigorin excepted with caveats) to the point where they can make decisions which are life-affirming. Chekhov and Mayer’s iteration of his version of The Seagull places the human condition in its humor and sadness front and center. To his credit Mayer’s understanding and perception continually serve his fine cinematic intuitions, skills and efforts.
The vitality of the settings that move back and forth from outdoors to interiors ground us in the landed wealth and social order of the Sorin family who also boasts a celebrity, the actress Irina who visits her brother Sorin and her son Konstantin each summer. The settings, always a subtle reminder of the time and place in Russia before the revolution (twenty years or so later) seem a particular irony. The upper class social elites and celebrities (Irina, Trigorin, etc.) whose physical needs are answered by the serving class, remain surreptitiously unhappy and in a constant state of displacement by the major facts of life: love-loss, aging and death. Their sturm und drang, whimsies, self-absorption and discontents are the luxuries of their class which harbor the seeds of tragedy because their cavernous, selfish desires blind them to the encroaching realities. Unless they self-correct, they will face tragedy and loss after tragedy and destruction, muting their soul’s enrichment until little of worth is left.. Inevitably, this class in the coming decades will lose all they take for granted.
Irina (Bening is authentic and stunning as the aging diva racing one step ahead of oblivion, and the end of celebrity and youth) brings the successful novelist Trigorin (Stoll in a superbly realistic performance) into the summer festivities of the family on their estate. Trigorin’s presence is the catalyst that puts the human dominoes in motion and sends them careening off a cliff with humor and irrevocably pathos. Konstantin, a passionate, unconventional writer is devastated after his mother Irina and the others find his play, performed by his unrequited love Nina, to be laughable and esoteric. Too self-absorbed with their own greatness Irina and Trigorin dismiss his yearning for success and recognition. His need for his mother’s love and acceptance has fallen at the shores of his depressive state for years. Almost in a revenge against his plight and in a self-curse of not achieving success, he shoots a delightful, beautiful seagull in a wanton act to release his anger. He gives the seagull to Nina who rejects it. It is a symbolic act, as if as refuses to acknowledge that her unrequited love wounds him. This act reverberates and symbolizes additional themes. One is that human being’s selfish desires and passions loosed upon the natural world and others, if not moderated, harm and destroy.
For her part Nina (who lives on a neighboring estate) is entranced by Trigorin and dismissive of Konstantin’s love. She seeks fame as an actress and wants Trigorin’s love which he finds flattering for his ego is wounded in his relationship with Irina and the encroaching years of waning masculinity. Nina may be his last, greatest passion, and if not that, a distracting plaything to notch on his belt and then discard. When he notes the dead seagull, he shares that he may use it as a symbol in a work he will write. These poetic notions seduce Nina with the enticement that she may be his seagull. Nina is blind to the danger of what he says, innocently trusting him with her love and being.
Stoll as Trigorin is convincing especially in his self-justification of why he must take Nina’s love, if even for a season, when she offers it quoting from a passage in a work of his. This speech in particular is superbly delivered by Stoll. And even if it is not graceful, we empathize with his fear of aging and the limitations of his mortality with which we all can identify. Neither money, nor success nor celebrity can answer death. However, being pursued by two women a beautiful younger one and a celebrated actress who is a drama queen will suffice in the meantime, though it requires the humility and wisdom to negotiate their war against each other to “get” him. Trigorin’s pride and fear do not allow him to balance the two women so that they don’t care about his concern for the other in competing jealousies. They do care and they compete for him.
Irinia discovers Nina’s hopeless infatuation and must then approach Trigorin with clever wiles to get him to return with her to Moscow. If they stay at the estate, in front of her he will fulfill his lustful passion for Nina, for Nina is relentless. Irina refuses this humiliation.Though Trigorin and Irina leave together, in the short term she knows she must let him go.
Bening’s and Stoll’s interplay is smashing. In their portrayals, they reveal that neither character loves the other, but the passion for keeping their successful images by using each other’s status is familiar territory. Ultimately that will bind them together, despite any interfering love by encroaching inferiors like Nina or even Irina’s son Konstantin.
These intricate matters of the heart are further complicated by the unrequited love of Konstantin for Nina whom he adores, and Masha’s (the daughter of Sorin’s baliff) unrequited love of Konstantin. The only stable one appears to be Doctor Dorn (Jon Tenney) who sees the value in Konstantin’s symbolistic, maverick play. However, he is having an affair with Polina behind her husband’s back, not embarrassed to cuckhold an inferior. Thus, with this selfish and wanton weakness, he fits the ethos of the other disturbed, dismantling characters.
What of the irascible and reflexive Sorin (Dennehy) who allows the visitors to descend on the estate each summer with aplomb and takes care of his nephew Konstantin while his sister indulges her passions for the dramatic life? He appears to be the most balanced, but he has two sick feet on a banana peel, and if he moves too suddenly, he appears ready to slip out of life. Only the servants/peasants whose needs we cannot see remain solid even heroic as they attend to their sometimes “infantile” charges and judge their actions accordingly.
The beauty of the film is its muscularity. The director focuses on the performances in the highly charged scenes between Bening’s Irina and Stoll’s Trigorin and between Trigorin and Saoirse Ronan’s Nina and between Nina and Howle’s Konstantin.
The succinct script entices us toward believability. We know these individuals and are fascinated by their rationale for behaving as they do. Though not very admirable or honorable, they are like us as they “hang themselves and each other out to dry.” When Nina returns in her dishevelment and dislocation of self and presents what she “is” to Konstantin, he sees her identity ravished and torn by Trigorin and the vicissitudes of her mediocre acting career. From his love for her and out of his own depths of despair, he willfully kills himself ending his misery and torment.
The ending is particularly poignant. Saoirse Ronan, appears like a ghost to revisit and haunt the scene as if transferring her great wounds to Konstantin who again kills a seagull in his empathy with it. This time it is himself. Representatively, symbolically his act shows that though Nina’s physical life continues, for all intents and purposes, her beauty and innocence are dead. Both have allowed themselves to be consumed by others whose great, dark abyss of self-torment seems limitless in its rapacity to devour all who attempt to love them.
See the film for the performances: all are wonderful, and kudos to Elisabeth Moss who manages always to be funny in her despair and angst. Mare Winningham, Jon Tenney and Brian Dennehy relay solid performances.
Mayer has found an approach to putting difficult classics onscreen. Perhaps he will continue this trend; fine directors should work with the classics to acquaint the current generation with great playwrights and authors. Actors surely will jump at the opportunity, to portray humorous and profound characterizations like the ones Chekhov has delineated in The Seagull.