Translating Chekhov is no small feat. The acclaimed Russian playwright grapples with themes of infidelity, suicide, heartache and the value and cost of fame as well as aging, thrift, and loyalty, but he does so with brevity, grace, and barrels of humor. Filmmaker Michael Mayer has plucked these strings of humor that are often lost in productions of The Seagull and he does so with passion and excellence in every area of production.
Konstantin played by Billy Howle who seers the screen with passion, wants to break the staid old traditions of theater. He has a fresh writing voice and wants to force viewers to work towards understanding his plays. His mother, Irina (Annette Bening), is a classically trained, successful, aging, diva actress. She is not impressed by her son’s work, quite probably because she craves attention and doesn’t want any falling upon him. Thus begins the conflict. Which style of theater has more value? Is the work that Irina is doing more or less valuable because it’s popular?
His relationship with his mother is just one of Konstantin’s problems. He is deeply in love with his young, daisy-fresh actress Nina (Saoirse Ronan) who seduces and woos the older and very accomplished writer on premises, Boris Trigorin played by the eternally charming Corey Stoll. This issue becomes more complicated as Boris is in a romantic relationship with Konstantin’s mother Irina. Masha (Elizabeth Moss), perhaps theater’s first goth character, is in love with Konstantin but the simple teacher Mikhail (Michael Zeger) is in love with her.
And so the story spins. On the surface, it is a simple comic game of love, but there are so many brilliant layers to the writing. Each character has a richness and depth and they are all simultaneously at a pivotal moment in their lives, questioning their current positions and value to each other. Other performers in the film include Brian Dennehy as Sorin, Irina’s ailing brother, Jon Tenney as Dr. Dorn, and the woman who loves him, Mare Winningham as Polina, wife to the groundskeeper.
Add to this premise lush settings, gorgeous costumes, phenomenal performances, a compelling score (Nico Muhly and Anton Sanko), which sounds both completely modern and classic, and bold shot choices and you have an inspired viewing experience. There have been some rumblings that the hand-held camera and tight shots don’t always work effectively and can take the viewer temporarily out of the moment, but how refreshing is it to see a period film trying new things?
For those not familiar with the original work there are sure to be numerous surprises in the unfolding of the story. For those who know the work, the choices made to introduce and close the film will certainly please as will the fast pace of the dialog, a theater technique which is often lost in film translations of plays.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Director: Michael Mayer
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Corey Stoll, Elizabeth Moss, Annette Bening, Brian Denehy, Michael Zegen, Billy Howle, Mare Winningham, Jon Tenney
Runtime: 98 minutes
Release date: May 2018
MPAA rating: PG-13