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Modern-day reworkings of classic tales are nothing new. Romeo and Juliet turned into West Side Story, and Jane Austen’s Emma was transplanted to a Beverly Hills high school for Clueless. Now actor-director Christian Camargo (best known for his role in the Oscar-winning film, The Hurt Locker) has decided to rethink Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece, The Seagull. Days and Nights, which had its world premiere in Palm Springs, brings the playwright’s dysfunctional family to a Connecticut estate in the 1980s. Camargo attracted an exceptional cast, which is something of a mystery in light of the script’s flimsiness. These marquee names — including theater favorites Cherry Jones and Mark Rylance, along with movie personalities Katie Holmes, William Hurt and Jean Reno — may draw a small audience at art houses, but it’s hard to imagine the movie traveling very far beyond 50th Street and Broadway.
The cast of characters is similar to the Chekhov ensemble, with an American bald eagle substituted for the seagull of the original. The action is set in motion when actress Elizabeth (Allison Janney) returns to her family home with her somewhat younger lover (played by Camargo) in tow. There she interacts with her disgruntled son, Eric (Ben Whishaw), and the woman he loves (Juliet Rylance, Mark’s stepdaughter), as well as with her ailing brother (Hurt) and members of his household staff. Tensions erupt when Eric gathers the clan for a mixed media presentation (updated from the theatrical performance that figures in The Seagull). All of the relationships come under fire, and the evening ends in disaster. As in the original play, most of the characters reunite three years later and meet their tragic destiny.
The film fails to do justice to Chekhov’s larger themes. The play incorporates several stories of unrequited love. But most of these romantic subplots are lost in the current version, robbing the story of much of its poignancy. The arbitrariness of fame, another theme of The Seagull, is treated superficially here. And certain motifs from the play do not work in a modern setting. Would any upper middle class family in Connecticut really have their own personal physician (Reno) constantly at their beck and call in the way that Russian aristocrats might have had a century ago?
Only a few of the excellent actors have roles they can play to the hilt. Janney probably comes off best as the self-centered diva, and Whishaw brings convincing anger as well as vulnerability to the role of the troubled young artist. Holmes does reasonably well in the modern-day version of Chekhov’s Masha, who always wears black, and Hurt is affecting as the dying lord of the manor. But the great Jones has almost nothing to do, and Mark Rylance, who is so renowned for his stage work, seems at sea in another underwritten part.
The film looks lovely, thanks to Steve Cosens’ fine cinematography, and the score by Claire von Kampen also adds some texture and pathos. One can certainly give this movie A for effort, but the achievement falls far short of the lofty intentions.
Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival
Cast: Allison Janney, Katie Holmes, Ben Whishaw, William Hurt, Jean Reno, Mark Rylance, Cherry Jones, Juliet Rylance, Christian Camargo
Director-screenwriter: Christian Camargo
Producers: Barbara Romer, Juliet Rylance
Executive producers: Suzy Franczak, Thomas Lightburn, Mark Stewart
Director of photography: Steve Cosens
Production designer: Tommaso Ortino
Music: Claire van Kampen
Costume designer: Anna Terrazas
Editor: Ron Dulin
No rating, 93 minutes
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