The action of The Seagull takes place in a country house in Russia at the start of the 20th century. The house belongs to Irina (Annette Bening), a famous but ageing actress. Her son, Konstantin (Billy Howle) is a struggling young writer who envies his mother’s partner, the famous writer Boris Trigorin (Corey Stall). Konstantin’s fame-obsessed girlfriend Nina (Saoirse Ronan) is enraptured by Trigorin’s success, and tries to seduce him. Masha (Elisabeth Moss) is in love with Konstantin, and is loved by the silly schoolmaster Mikhail (Michael Segen).
This latest adaptation of Chekhov’s famous play is filled with energy, perhaps more so than the Russian writer intended. Director Michael Mayer and screenwriter Stephen Karam lace his words with a fiery passion, quite sexual in its nature, especially from the women (early on, Masha watches Konstantin jump naked into the lake). The connection between Nina and Konstantin is so youthfully fierce that their lips feel constantly magnetised to each other (a jarring contrast to the couple Howle and Ronan play in On Chesil Beach).
The actors, as well as Mayer’s direction, ensure that the darkness underneath the comedy is alive rather than ignored. There’s a comedy to Masha’s ennui (“I’m in mourning for my life.”), but it’s battling with bleak, existential emotions – strongly facilitated by Moss’s talent of summoning such pain and hurt in her face. Some of these moments should feel more appropriate to Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, yet they manage to fit comfortably in this environment.
But the show is stolen by Ronan, who’s become an omnipresent figure in literary adaptations (Atonement, The Lovely Bones, Brooklyn). Her overwhelming fragility is something of a staple, and nowhere is it more valuable than in the film’s closing minutes. Ronan makes the character attractive, despite her fame-hungry and adulterous tendencies, in what is probably her most charged performance to date.
There are times when Mayer and Karam can’t give each character their due, even adding characters to increase the pulse of the story. But their version of The Seagull is a whirlwind of fun and romantic drama, made accessible even for those unfamiliar with the script. As play adaptations go, this is one of the good ones.
The Seagull is released nationwide on 7th September 2018.
Watch the trailer for The Seagull here: