Sunday, June 17, 2018

Film Review: Anton Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull,’ Starring Annette Bening

I could tell you any number of reasons why you should see the latest screen adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. Let’s dispense with the high-minded cultural one: i.e., that it’s good for you. That kind of argument, resting on the notion that it’s not every day that a classic gets translated to the screen, will be scant comfort to anyone forced to sit through a production that drags along.

I’m afraid that this dramedy—the first in which the Russian doctor-turned-short-story writer hit his stride as a master of the stage in the 1890s—has attracted nowhere near the notice it deserves, after its premiere a month ago at the Tribeca Film Festival. More’s the pity, because Michael Mayer has directed a rarity—a Chekhovian showcase of the actor’s art that also functions as a fine piece of cinema, as it is buoyed by:

*an all-star group of actors, virtually all perfectly cast;

*lovely location shooting;

*concise scenes that do not linger a second longer than necessary; and

* a fluid but not hyperkinetic camera.

Let’s start with the setting. This does not appear to be a particularly high-budget film (after all, there are no whiz-bang special effects). 

But by filming in 21 days in 2015, replacing Chekhov’s dacha with a mansion in upstate Monroe, NY, Mayer has found an excellent cinematic (and relatively inexpensive American) counterpart to what is evoked onstage. It allows for a greater sense of realism, and the window vistas allow characters to eavesdrop on a lake boating session with heavy romantic overtones. It brings near-perfect understanding of what this play’s stand-in for Chekhov, Dr. Dorn, means by “the spells cast by this lake.”

(Not perfect, but near-perfect. If there is a problem with the cinematography, in fact, it might be that it is too good. It gives an idea of the sylvan lakeside setting, for instance, but not of the crushingly boring country life that make the women especially so tetchy and anxious for a different, more fulfilling life, preferably in Moscow.)

All that beauty could make for a monotonous couple of hours at the movie, except that the pace of scenes is economical. In this romantic roundelay of disappointment and mismatched lovers, characters constantly pursue a love that is not returned, and in turn are shadowed by others whose love they cannot accept. 

So, for instance, aspiring playwright Konstantine yells “Go away” at the estate manager’s daughter Masha, who also immediately screams the same thing at her unfortunate swain, the schoolteacher Mikhail Medvedenko. The pattern is repeated, in a mad, fruitless, endless circular dance all through the rooms and woods surrounding this dacha that, in the not-so-distant future, will have far graver matters confronting it.

What also struck me, in a week featuring the high-profile suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, were Chekhov’s insights into how anyone with money could be despondent. Happiness does not depend on money, Masha says; sometimes even poor men can find it.

Unfortunately, happiness is in short supply among those who gather for the summer at the estate of Sorin, including those in the seemingly glamorous orbit of his sister, the famous actress Irina Arkadina. 

Mayer is aided by a fine cast, particularly the trio of leading actresses: Saoirse Ronan (as Konstantine’s muse and aspiring actress Nina), Elisabeth Moss (pictured here) as Masha, and Annette Bening as the monstrously narcissistic but pathetic Irina Arkadina.

Bening’s role here is similar to her Oscar-nominated performance in Being Julia (2005) and her equally acclaimed one as Gloria Grahame in Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool (2018). In all three, she plays narcissistic actresses, high-strung and romantically entangled, who are driven to the edge by their fear of aging. Seldom has such anxiety been conveyed so starkly and fearlessly onscreen. 

Watch the crows’ feet on her face as, from a high window, she glimpses a possible usurper of her place in the Russian theater and in the bed of her lover, the facile writer Boris Trigorin. Listen to her voice shift from cold anger to desperation as she confronts Trigorin about his infidelity. 

Not for nothing does good, kind Dr. Dorn (played by an affecting Jon Tenney) tell her when asked that she looks younger than Masha. The middle-aged actress needs reassurance far more desperately than the depressed, lovelorn younger woman. 

In Masha, Moss molds a character whose sharply angular features mirror her sharp intelligence and sharp wit. The effect is of a 21st-century cable TV female comic—wisecracking, substance-abusing—plumped down in the wrong century and country and all too aware of it. By the end, Masha’s all-black clothing and her explanation for it—“I’m in mourning for my life”—are not mere melodramatic affectations but perfectly comprehensible. Contemptuous of anyone’s pity, Masha still receives the audience’s because of Moss’ portrayal.

As Nina, Ronan adds a different dimension to a role usually seen as an innocent ingénue seduced and abandoned by Trigorin. Star-struck Nina may be taken advantage of by the worldly writer, but she pursues him as avidly as she does a life on the stage. Her tragedy is not that she was beaten by fate but that she badly overestimated her ability to master it.

As Trigorin, Corey Stoll (who played the doomed congressman in Season 1 of House of Cards) is a perfect foil for Bening and Ronan. His personality, like his creative output, offers a bland, amiable surface that make it easy for him to attract women, but without offering anything deeper. He admits that there’s justification for Konstantine’s characterization of him as facile, but can he help it if readers snatch up his books, any more than women continue to fall for him?

Brian Dennehy brings a bonhomie to Sorin that is shot through with the same kind of disappointment that the other characters experience. He values his encounters with Dorn and his nephew Konstantine as a kind of consolation prize for the twin disappointments of his life: his inability to marry or to become a published writer.

In the Rockland County, NY, multiplex where I saw the film, only two other people were in the theater for that particular performance. Obviously, this did not make for an ideal audience. 

Still, I’m not sure that more fans would have necessarily fostered an appreciation for the script by Stephen Karam. Hardly an unheralded playwright, as evidenced by The Humans, Karam is still not an ideal translator or adapter of Chekhov.  

Though his work here is still an improvement on his adaptation of Chekhov’s final masterpiece, The Cherry Orchard, mounted by the Roundabout Theatre Co. a few years ago (see my review from the time here), Karam still leaves Chekhov’s humor—ironic, rueful—deeply submerged. Konstantine’s contempt for Trigorin’s shallowness, for instance, comes across as merely envious rather than bitterly accurate if over-the-top in the lengths to which it is taken (a duel challenge).

(For a better sense of how this could be done, the gold standard is still the production mounted on Broadway a decade ago starring Kristin Scott Thomas, directed by Ian Rickson and adapted by Christopher Hampton.)

For my money, the best all-around version of The Seagull is still the 1975 one televised as part of PBS’s “Great Performances” series starring Lee Grant, Frank Langella, Blythe Danner, Kevin McCarthy, and Olympia Dukakis. But Mayer’s works perfectly fine in its own right, taking full advantage of its location setting and its marvelous cast. If you cannot see it in movie theaters, I urge you to catch it streaming or on DVD.

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