Michael Mayer (director)
98 mins (length)
07 September 2020 (released)
11 September 2018
It is not uncommon for a filmmaker to turn to theatre for big screen inspiration. Some features astound simply because their screenplays are derived from works that are inherently cinematic – Milos Forman’s Amadeus, for example. Other times, as with Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, an auteur will seize an opportunity to imbue an already brilliant script with his or her own vision, creating screen magic. Sadly, and most commonly, a director will trust that the script and the actors will be enough to carry off the film as a success, and there is little or nothing artistic to comment on. Rarely does such a film hold up: Glengarry Glen Ross, The Odd Couple and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? perhaps. But often with this scenario, there’s no escaping the fact that the script was written for the stage, and the director has failed to find a legitimate reason for it to be on screen. Think of Denzel Washington’s Fences, Six Degrees of Separation, and August: Osage County, to name a few.
The Seagull is an early 20th Century play by Russian writer Anton Chekhov. As with most of Chekhov’s works, the play takes place on a large period estate, where a multitude of characters convene to discuss money, love and passion, and to argue and drink. Michael Mayer’s feature keeps the Russian lakeside setting, period costumes and original character names, leading to the first of many confusing directorial choices: the actors speak with American accents. This is an unfortunate decision for Billy Howle, who never quite masters the dialect. Howle plays aspiring writer Konstantin, desperately in love with young actress Nina (Saoirse Ronan), but even more desperate for his talent to be acknowledged by his mother. Played by Annette Bening, said mother Arkadina is the owner of the estate, herself a famous thespian visiting with her lover Trigorin (Corey Stoll), who is widely recognised as one of the best writers in the country. To go into more detail on the conflict and desire that springs up between these characters would spoil the fun, if Mayer allows for any.
Regretfully, he seems to be looking in all the wrong places. For a start, almost all of these actors are woefully miscast. Howle and Ronan somehow manage to have less on screen chemistry than they did earlier this year in the deliberately awkward On Chesil Beach. There’s never an ounce of attraction between them, and their self absorption isn’t played with enough gusto to give cause to the fluctuating state of their relationship. Stoll is at best wooden, at worst bored by a role he should be jumping at. Only Bening delivers, capturing the deliciously calculated malice Arkadina projects, masking heaps of raw emotion. Most disappointing of all is Elizabeth Moss, stuck in a role that requires a level of immaturity that doesn’t play to her strengths as an actress.
But this is just the start of the trouble – every stylistic choice seems ill considered. Serious plot points are played for nothing other than melodrama, and inter-character conflict reduced to petty squabbling. Worse still, the problems the actors face can be traced back to a director who favours star power over sensible casting. Konstantin and Nina are written off as silly youths, forcing their actions to seem trite rather than carrying weight, and making Moss’s Masha seem even older in comparison. The script adds an overly pretentious narrator-esque side to Trigorin, distancing him when he could act as the surrogate for the audience. And all of it is filmed in close up, to focus in on actors uncomfortable in their parts. Thus Mayer loses the brilliant ensemble effect Chekhov cultivated; instead of trying to ape Douglas Sirk, he should look to Robert Altman for guidance.
The director doesn’t seem to understand his source material. With deliberate references to Shakespeare, it’s as if he thinks he’s directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream – that the point of the story is that everyone is in love with the wrong person. Mayer should revisit the original text, to save a brilliant script from the soppy mess it has become. “Nothing happens in your plays, it’s all talk,” Nina tells a smitten Konstantin, in a misjudged meta complisult of most of the early 20th century literature this film should be paying tribute to. “What’s wrong with a love story?”. Sometimes, as Mr Mayer will hopefullt learn from this disastrous outing, not every film needs a love story.