The Seagull (Michael Mayer, 2018) 1 out of 4 stars.
To be fair to director Michael Mayer (Flicka) and his troupe of actors, I have never been a fan of the original 1896 play The Seagull. The deeply talented Russian dramatist and short-story writer Anton Chekhov, born in 1860, created quite a lot of work in his short life (he died in 1904) that I love, including two of his plays – Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard – and many of his stories, The Lady with the Dog and The Grasshopper among my absolute favorites. I simply find the excessively maudlin sentimentality of The Seagull unbearable, devoid of the later subtleties that Chekhov would develop, and this despite its status as the first great triumph of Konstantin Stanislavski’s then-nascent Moscow Art Theatre (which adopted a seagull as its official logo shortly thereafter). So, Mayer and company had a large hurdle to overcome to make me like their movie. Sadly, they trip over the first one, and never hit a full running stride thereafter, the frenetic camerawork and contrived performances only making things worse.
There are a few moments of grace, among them Annette Bening’s towering performance as the impulsive matriarch Irina Arkadina, an aging stage actress who presides over the affairs of her country estate like an imperious diva – sometimes sweet, sometimes cruel – desperate to hold onto glory and attention even as both threaten to fade away. Chekhov loved to write about the clash of generations and social classes in late-Tsarist Russia, foretelling a doom that he would never live to see. That theme is ever-present here, lifting the narrative beyond a mere portrait of an unpleasant family, though not as powerfully as it would be in later work. The other characters – Irina’s wannabe writer son Konstantin, her younger lover (an actual writer) Boris, her ailing brother Pyotr, Konstantin’s love interest (and aspiring actress) Nina, among others – all represent different facets of Russian society at the time, and their presence at a secluded rural location leads to fireworks (emotional and literal). The drama is compelling, Chekhov’s execution less so. And let’s not even talk about the heavy-handed symbolism of the titular bird, the death of which presages sorrow to come …
Mayer does not help the proceedings with his restless camera that sometimes skips around in handheld jitters, sometimes glides through beautifully smooth tracking shots, sometimes stands still, none of it for any discernible reason. The actors joust and jostle in a mannered melee, no one beyond Bening (20th Century Women) quite finding a consistent groove. Perhaps that’s the point: nobody is at ease in this rapidly changing world where social mores no longer mean what they used to. But scene to scene, nothing builds, and the big beats, such as they are, fall flat, accompanied by an incongruous jaunty score. Try as they might, the ensemble – from Elisabeth Moss (The Square) to Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird) to Corey Stoll (Ant-Man) and more – can rise above neither the material nor the direction, and by the end we long, ourselves, to be that slaughtered seagull, clumsy metaphor and all.