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| 20 October 2018 | Reply

Written by Anton Chekhov
Screenplay by Stephen Karam
Directed by Michael Mayer
Starring Annette Benning, Saoirse Ronan, Corey Stoll, Elisabeth Moss, Billy Howle, Brian Dennehy
Reviewed by Shane Pinnegar
6 ½ /10

There’s a lot to like in this latest adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s 1896 play, but unfortunately most of it is superficial.

The acting, for starters, is uniformly superb, with Annette Benning, Saoirse Ronan, Corey Stoll, Elisabeth Moss, Billy Howle, Brian Dennehy and the rest totally convincing in their portrayals of these desperately unhappy people caught in a myriad of love triangles and illicit trysts and the conflicting value of art.

Shot mostly with New York state doubling for the Russian countryside outside of Moscow, the cinematography and sceneries are also divine, adding a palpable sense of lush stillness to the story.

Annette Benning relishes playing the vain narcissist actress Irena, while Stoll is suitably predatory as her lover, the famous author Boris, who sets his sights on Irena’s son Konstantine’s girlfriend Nina. Howle embodies the emotionally neglected wannabe author Konstantine, while Ronan is superb as the opportunistic youngster Nina with stars in her eyes who drops Konstantine like a hot potato for Boris as soon as she starts to imagine her own name in lights as an actress. Elisabeth Moss plays it straight in the darkly comic role of Masha, whose unrequited love for Konstantine, refusal to entertain the affections of schoolteacher Medvedenko and affection for vodka provide some of the film’s funnier moments.

Sadly, like Konstantine’s own stories, which we’re told lack an individual voice, Chekhov’s clever work in pitting these unhappy souls against each other doesn’t translate so well to the big screen. For starters, the story is resolutely dated, with strangers falling in love at first sight, and nursing unrequited love for years. Chekhov’s insistence that the greatest action stays off the stage also plays against The Seagull here, leaving the story somewhat ambiguous and its audience uncompelled to feel enough for the characters. Chekhov was also adamant that The Seagull was a comedy, and Irina and Masha’s self-indulgent foibles do provide dark laughs, but the rest of the play is perhaps presented too earnestly to allow the dark comedy therein its rightful place.

It’s also interesting to note that Mayer and Producer Tom Hulce (who you should remember as Mozart in the movie Amadeus, amongst many other acting roles) have juggled the timeline of the film, moving the start of the last act to the opening of the movie, rejigging the body of the film as a flashback, before returning to the opening again to lead to the finale. Maybe it makes sense to some, but we found it messy, contrived and confusing. Perhaps they felt the need to pad the film out?

Chekhov is widely considered ‘unfilmable’ and on the evidence here, for good reason. Mayer’s cameras move strangely, as if over-compensating for the lack of lightning in a bottle being captured. The gorgeousness of the settings clash with the lack of sympathy we feel for literally every one of these selfish characters, and as we walk out of the cinema realising that the lavish but superficial production hasn’t illuminated or enlightened us one iota nor brought anything new to the source material we wonder just one thing: “Why did they all bother?”

Category: Movie & Theatre Reviews

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