Enjoyable Chekov deftly brought to the screen.
Director: Michael Mayer (A Home at the End of the World)
Screenplay: Stephen Karam (Speech & Debate) from Chekov play
Cast: Annette Bening (Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool), Saoirse Ronan (On Chesil Beach)
Runtime: 1 hr 38 min
by John DeSando
In 1896, the great Russian story teller, Anton Chekov, couldn’t have foreseen his plays being produced through moving pictures over a century later. This classy film adaptation of The Seagull shows that not only does the master translate to the screen well, but also his works are enhanced by a roving lens that carries nuance better that any Victorian stentorian could have hoped.
Relatively-new film director Michael Mayer lyrically highlights with close-ups, quick cuts, and manipulated time the agony of unrequited love in a household where count can be lost of who loves whom, who doesn’t love back. The most prominent mismatch is between aspiring and rich young actress Nina (Saoirse Ronan) and aspiring, idealistic young writer Konstantin (Billy Howell).
Their innocence is compromised by an adult world, for instance, by the acclaimed writer Trigorin (Corey Stoll), who steals her from Konstantin, who is jealous but remains doggedly devoted to her. (Ronan and Howell do their anguished young lovers bit even better in On Chesil Beach.)
And on and on as the web of lies and loss ensnares them all. Yet, an air of civility covers the entire proceedings, hallmarked by Konstantin’s vain, acclaimed actress mother, Irina (Annette Bening), herself in a relationship with Trigorin. Irina stands best for Chekov’s theme of the clash between classical theater and modernist imagination, exemplified by her son Konstantin’s work, redolent of symbol and allegory and, oh, so self important. His outdoor play with a makeshift curtain evokes The Fantasticks with a little Midsummer Night’s Dream but hardly the genius of either.
Because Irina is not impressed with Konstantin’s creativity, her young writer son is filled with despair. Everyone else seems to be able to go on, albeit with cascading tears and gloomy resignation.
Although this drama may be dark, and Chekov is not known, after all, for his hilarity, witnessing it is a pleasant theatrical experience because we are all so darn fascinating when we become fools for love. Beyond that, the acting is some of the best you will see in cinema all year—even if it is grounded in 19th-century Russian theater. Chekov lives on.
John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.rr.com