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You can feel the heat, temperature and otherwise, in Michael Mayer’s sultry screen adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s classic 1896 play. Rather than the reams of dialogue you would normally expect, this streamlined version scripted by Tony Award-winning playwright Stephen Karam (The Humans) delivers sensuality in spades. Sure, the characters constantly talk about their unfulfilled lives and unrequited loves. But they also skinny-dip in the lake and constantly make out with each other. A stodgy The Seagull this is not. Would you expect anything else from theater director Mayer, who picked up a Tony himself for the sex-drenched musical Spring Awakening? The film, receiving its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, is scheduled for theatrical release on May 11 via Sony Pictures Classics.
Despite numerous attempts, Chekhov adaptations have never worked particularly well on film. Even Sidney Lumet wasn’t able to pull if off successfully with his 1968 screen version of the play despite a cast including such luminaries as James Mason, Simone Signoret and Vanessa Redgrave. Mayer’s rendition, shot three years ago, doesn’t fully reverse the trend. But it’s a wholly respectable version featuring terrific performances from its estimable ensemble.
Annette Bening, who has enjoyed a late-career renaissance with her superb if under-awarded performances in such films as 20th Century Women and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, scores another triumph with her turn as the vainglorious, aging actress Irina. Conveying Irina’s desperate insecurity as she becomes aware that her younger lover Trigorin (Corey Stoll) has fallen in love with the winsome Nina (Saoirse Ronan), Bening makes her character fully sympathetic even when cruelly insulting her aspiring playwright son Konstantin (Billy Howle).
Bening is well matched by the rest of the cast, especially Elisabeth Moss, seemingly born to play the desperately lovesick Masha, who proclaims, “I’m in mourning for my life.” Constantly sniffing snuff and surreptitiously boozing, her Masha is as fiercely defiant as she is miserable, lending a palpable tension to her scenes with Medvedenko (Michael Zegen), the schoolteacher whose love she scorns as she pines for Konstantin.
Ronan also delivers a knockout turn as Nina, the young woman whose ruthless ambition becomes evident when she throws Konstantin over to pursue the older, successful writer Trigorin. Rather than being the innocent ingenue so often portrayed, this is a Nina who is fully capable of manipulating those people supposedly more sophisticated than her to get what she wants.
As excellently played by Stoll, Trigorin seems more sympathetic than usual, the actor superbly conveying the character’s endless compulsion to transform life into fiction. Brian Dennehy brings a moving world-weariness to the aged, infirm Sorin, while Mare Winningham’s Polina, yet another character in love with someone she cannot have, crafts a poignant portrait of quiet desperation. Unfortunately, the admirable subtlety of most of the performances contrasts with Howle, who too often resorts to histrionics as the anguished Konstantin.
Mayer accentuates the actors’ fine work by endlessly filling the screen with close-ups that bring an intense intimacy to the proceedings. Despite its low budget, the film looks terrific, thanks to the evocative upstate New York locations, Matthew J. Lloyd’s sun-dappled cinematography making extensive use of natural light, Jane Musky’s detailed production design and Ann Roth’s handsome period costumes. The musical score by contemporary classical composer Nico Muhly and Anton Sanko, the latter of whom has written the music for several horror films including Ouija and Jessabelle, successfully adds to the tense atmospherics.
Karam’s screenplay pares down the play considerably, resulting in a brief 99-minute running time that will displease purists but keeps the pacing rapid. The adaptation feels wanting in some respects, especially in the climactic scene that feels wholly anti-climactic. It also doesn’t fully bring out the comic aspects of the work, although to be fair, those are neglected more often than not. Nonetheless, this Seagull proves a worthy if hardly definitive adaptation of the classic drama.
Production companies: Laluchien, Mar-key Pictures, Artina, KGB Media, Hyde Park International
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Cast: Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Corey Stoll, Billy Howle, Elisabeth Moss, Mare Winningham, Brian Dennehy, Jon Tenney, Glenn Fleshler, Michael Zegen
Director: Michael Mayer
Screenwriter: Stephen Karam
Producers: Tom Hulce, Leslie Urdang, Robert Salerno, Jay Franke, David Herro
Executive producers: Ira Pittelman, Ron Simons, Kelly E. Ashton, Miranda De Pencier, Matthew Masten, Margaret Skoglund, Stefan Sonnenfeld, Bingo Gubelmann, Benji Kohn, Noah Millman, Galt Diederhoffer
Director of photography: Matthew J. Lloyd
Production designer: Jane Musky
Editor: Annette Davey
Composers: Nico Muhly, Anton Sanko
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Casting: Jim Carnahan
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival
Rated PG-13, 99 minutes
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