This seagull is dead on arrival.
Russian literature is a beast all its own. The dark, pendulous themes and characters can often leave you slogging through 500 pages of wordy prose while you simultaneously contemplate opening up a vein. These sentiments are felt in Michael Mayer’s The Seagull. An adaptation of the play by Anton Chekov, The Seagull is the story of beautiful people living in luxury, dealing with their unhappiness in a way that leaves others (and, by extension, the audience) just as miserable as they are. The all-star cast gives the film a necessary shot in the arm, but their work is squashed under the weight of a overly verbose script in love with itself.
The Seagull never attempts to hide from the obvious criticisms of telling a Russian story with American actors. Hence all the characters have standard Russian names yet the actors rock American accents; this will immediately determine whether the feature is for you or not. Set on a country estate, the film follows blossoming playwright Konstantin (Billy Howle). He has an acrimonious relationship with his actress mother Irina (Annette Bening), but he’s predominately jealous of her much younger lover, successful playwright Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll). The standard trappings of Russian literature are evident in this relationship alone. Konstantin bemoans his fate openly and never questions whether his work is any good – this in spite of a presentation of one of his plays that leaves Irina, and the audience, baldly seeing that the man just isn’t a good writer.
Konstantin’s antipathy mainly falls on his hatred for Boris. The film wants us to see the two as differing examples of the competitive male spirit, particularly in their mutual wooing of Nina (Saoirse Ronan), a poor girl hoping to become an actress. This love triangle is being utilized as The Seagull’s primary selling point, but it comes through in fits and starts. The audience never comes to understand the characters enough to invest in their relationship. Konstantin is a whiner, played with maximum obnoxiousness by Howle who says all his lines with little affect and evident dismissiveness. His relationship with the sweet-natured Nina extends to a few kisses, but it’s never situated as a love for the ages. In actuality, it’s Nina’s relationship with Boris that’s more compelling because there’s a bizarre power dynamic that’s explored.
Ronan and Stoll are too good for The Seagull which wastes their talents on maudlin discussions of genius and romance. Nina is in love with the older Boris because of his accomplishments as a writer, while Boris loves Nina because she makes him feel young again. It’s a tale as old as time but the script never gives us a reason to care, and in the wake of #MeToo it’s hard to root for a relationship that comes off like an older man exploiting a young woman, which is exactly what it is. Annette Bening’s Irina comes off as the fourth wheel on this uneven cart, with the film touching on the stereotypical fears older women presumably have regarding aging.
The rest of the cast of characters are mainly there as set dressing with plot motivations that seem to have been cut in post. Mare Winningham and Jon Tenney’s characters allude to a relationship but it receives nothing more than a mention; Elisabeth Moss’ character is a Russian Eeyore, griping about her undying love for Konstantin and blandly stating epitaphs like “I’m in mourning…for my life.” It doesn’t help that the script, attributed to Stephen Karam in his feature film debut, sounds like a bastardization of an abridged version of the play. Characters project their lines like they’re reading to the back of the audience but are more likely trying to talk loudly enough for other characters to hear their supposed secrets. And far too much of what we learn about the characters is flat-out exposition passing for dialogue. At one point, Konstantin describes Boris as “not even 40 but he’s already a celebrity” in a way that sounds like he has the script in front of him. Russian literature is praised for its beauty and elegance, but that’s entirely missing from this bad reading.
The Seagull fails on every level. As a Russian adaptation, it fails to give meaning to Chekov’s work. As a romance, it’s not particularly romantic. As a costume drama, the costumes and sets are perfunctory at best. The actors are far too good for their roles, but their acting just doesn’t breathe life into this. This seagull is dead on arrival.