Saturday, April 28, 2018

Talking Tribeca: The Seagull

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 18th-29th.

The Seagull
Directed by Michael Mayer
Spotlight Narrative

There are some stories that are adapted over and over, told by a number of different voices. Each seeks to offer a new take on what the author originally intended, something that will likely speak to audiences very familiar with the preexisting work and may also reach a new crowd that hasn’t yet experienced it. Every iteration requires enough to be familiar and recognizable from the original yet inventive enough to distinguish it and make revisiting it feel worthwhile. “The Seagull,” a play by Anton Chekhov first put on in 1896, is one such work that has been adapted and reimagined so many times.

Gathered in the country for a weekend, actress Irina (Annette Bening) has come with her famous playwright partner Boris (Corey Stoll) to see her brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy). Irina’s son Konstantin (Billy Howle) has prepared a unique play to put on for everyone starring his beloved Nina (Saoirse Ronan). Nina’s admiration for Boris is matched by Konstantin’s hatred of him. Masha (Elisabeth Moss) pines for Konstantin while Mikhail (Michael Zegen) longs for her to acknowledge him, while Doctor Dorn (Jon Tenney), Shamrayev (Glenn Fleshler), and Polina (Mare Winningham) do their best to keep the peace.

This is a film that has gathered extraordinary talent together to recreate an acclaimed production. It’s a tale likely meant for the stage, as the striking visuals of the countryside and sitting on a boat in the water make a case for this film version but the dialogue and staging suggests that it would have been better in a different form. Its status as a crucial historical work is unquestioned, but whether yet another version was necessary remains a question since it doesn’t succeed nearly as triumphantly as it should, failing to achieve the sense of authenticity despite its layered and representative characters.

Bening gives the showiest turn in this film, an obvious fit for a role in which she performs commendably. Ronan follows up “Lady Bird” with a different kind of committed performance, one that sees her trying to impress another rather than living for herself. Moss is probably the strongest member of the cast, indulging Masha’s misery and making it a source of sardonic entertainment. Fleshler, who has been increasingly omnipresent in projects over the past few years, is another standout from the ensemble. While devotees of Chekhov’s work may find this take stirring, there’s something missing that prevents it from truly having the impact it desires, aimlessly and slowly wandering in search of it.


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