The revolutionary naturalism of Anton Chekhov’s debut play “The Seagull” rattled audiences and critics when it debuted on stage in 1896.
It was considered a disaster — until Konstantin Stanislavsky directed and performed a version of it two years later. Today, Chekov’s work endures, and remains relevant. With the help of playwright and screenwriter Stephen Karam, director Michael Mayer has brought a new cinematic adaptation to the screen, imbuing the tale of complicated family dynamics, creation and heartbreak with an unprecedented sense of intimacy.
In the countryside outside of Moscow, a family gathers at a sprawling wooded estate. Ailing Sorin (Brian Dennehy) summons his sister, storied actress Irina (Annette Bening), to his bedside. She arrives with her lover, the much younger writer Boris (Corey Stoll). With Sorin seemingly on the up and up, Irina settles in for a summer in the country. Her emotionally tortured son Konstantin (Billy Howle), desperately jealous of Boris’ success, tries in vain to court his mother’s attention, pounding away at the piano and staging elaborate DIY plays in the forest starring his crush, their neighbor, Nina (Saorise Ronan).
The foursome becomes hopelessly entangled in a knot of jealousy, affection and betrayal, as Boris and Nina are drawn to each other. The vain, needy and manipulative Irina vies for Boris’ attention with dresses and flirtation and flat-out domination, while Kostantin acts out in increasingly violent ways. He shoots a seagull and lies at Nina’s feet, declaring he is the seagull.
Orbiting around these four is a group of extended family members and friends who heighten and disperse the drama. Masha (Elisabeth Moss) is the hilariously goth daughter of the farm managers, who pines after Konstantin while rebuffing the attention of schoolteacher Medvenko (Michael Zegen). Everyone wants something that they’re not getting: inspiration, success, fame, love, adoration.
Working with cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd, Meyer infuses the tale with a sense of tactile immediacy. The film is lit almost entirely with practical lighting — fires and candles and sunlight dancing on skin. An ever-present handheld camera wavers and swoons into close-ups of each actor. There are almost no wide establishing shots, so we’re up close and personal with each character. The proximity is at times overwhelming, transferring the strong emotions on display to the audience. In a scene where Boris rows Nina around the lake, he looks directly into the camera, breaking the fourth wall, moving back and forth as he rows. The sheer intimacy is enough to make anyone fall for him, or at least get a sense of Nina’s experience as she’s swept away.
The film doubles back and repeats itself, toying with our sense of time. It’s a keen device t o establish what changes and what remains the same.
What’s constant is the space — its rituals and the dynamics within it. What changes are the people. The matters of the heart that seemed so light and trivial have devastating consequences. Boris, seemingly so thoughtful, is a man of very little conviction, and that lack of a spine reverberates tragically.
For his take on “The Seagull” Mayer has assembled a spectacular cast and maintains the historical roots, but most importantly, he’s paid tribute to Chekhov’s landmark sense of naturalism, which was a great evolution for the theater. It seems like it captures the true sense of humanism at the very soul of the story, which reflects both the lightness and the true darkness of life.