Monday 3 September 2018

The Seagull (USA 2018: Dir Michael Mayer)

When filmmakers opt to rework a classic text, whether novel or play - and indeed one which has been adapted before - it's usual to ask what they hope to bring that other directors have not achieved with previous adaptations; and whether a 21st century audience even cares about characters created over 120 years ago?

This is of course not a question asked when such revivals occur on stage, which probably says something about the nature of film as a less 'worthy' medium than theatre when handling works of heft.

The point about reviving The Seagull of course is that the source material is popularly seen as the first modernist play, and therefore the natural assumption is that the text can survive three centuries and still hold relevance for an audience. And Anton Chekhov's 1896 play hasn't really been adapted for screen that much; Sidney Lumet's 1968 production; a Russian version from 1972; and a direct theatrical adaptation in 1975.

Michael Mayer's version was filmed over 21 days on a very low budget using a country house in New York state as its location, standing in for Chekhov's Russian estate. It's a freewheeling adaptation that makes great use of a very mobile camera and some vibrant performances from a cast encouraged to bring out the essential comedy in the text.

The Seagull's story focuses on Sorin, a retired government employee and his sister Irina, a prissy narcissistic actress. Added to the group are the writer Boris, Irina's younger lover, and Irina's son Konstantin, an aspiring playwright who is in love with local girl Nina. And finally there is Masha, daughter of Sorin's estate manager, who is herself in love with Konstantin.

Playwright Stephen Karam, award winning author of the 2015 play 'The Humans,' adapted the text for Mayer, opting to switch the events of the play around, with Konstantin's play, normally taking place mid way through the production, opening the film; The playwright's disappointment at its reception by his mother provides a core narrative thread for the rest of the film.

The key performances are all female; Annette Bening as Irina, with her seemingly artless putdowns and general awfulness which masks a gritty passion; Elisabeth Moss as Masha, bringing a vital humour to the tragedy of her unrequited love, and Saoirse Ronan as Nina, who parades her fresh faced acting ambitions in front of Irina, whose success she hopes to emulate.

The Seagull is full of characters in love with people they shouldn't or couldn't be, and Matthew Lloyd's skittish photography dances between them, giving the film at times an almost ethereal quality laced with longing and sadness. The let's-put-on-a-play-right-here approach of the production reminded me of Joss Whedon's 2012 Shakespeare adaptation Much Ado About Nothing in its lightness of touch. Meyer's film is a worthy addition to the Chekhov filmed canon.

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