Reviewing Sidney Lumet’s straightforward adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962), the eminent film critic Pauline Kael rhetorically asked what was so wrong about a faithful record of a great play. There was a real benefit, she thought, in making such a work available to audiences who wouldn’t otherwise have that opportunity. So what if such “transcriptions” were called anti-cinematic. Such complaints, she seemed to suggest, were academic carping.
Michael Mayer’s new version of Anton Chekhov’s groundbreaking play, The Seagull, hardly reflects that sentiment. In fact, it doesn’t reflect it at all. He’s followed the now-standard approach of opening up a theatrical work for the camera and the screen. This has often worked well enough, with plays by authors from Tennessee Williams to Alan Bennett, but the successful cases usually involved some restraint and feeling for the source.
Here, Chekhov’s renowned subtleties and singular mix of ambiguity and pointedness are too often challenged and flattened by technique. His tragicomic portrayal of uneasy and traumatic relationships are, with annoying frequency, overwhelmed by Mayer’s busy, distracting direction. One might have expected that Mayer, a successful stage director (Spring Awakening, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) would bring more finesse and understanding to his direction. Instead, he’s unduly devoted himself to briskly propelling his movie along, losing too much of Chekhov’s flavor and tenor along the way.
He had a gifted, unusually capable cast to work with and the actors have been able to capture moments when the Seagull’s sad, stymied characters come across with Chekhov’s combination of poignance and irony.
There is, first of all, the inestimable Annette Bening as Irina Arkadina, star actress and prima donna in the Moscow theatre of the 1890s. Called back to her rural childhood home by the illness of her elder brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy, deftly understated), she’s confronted by her rebelliously resentful son Konstantin (Billy Howle). He acts out his oedipally tortured connection to his mother, and his sense of her neglect, in part, by writing a radically “advanced” play that challenges her prominence in the conventional theatre.
Konstantin is hopelessly in love with Nina (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring actress who can’t adapt to his moods and radical artistic ideas. Then there’s Corey Stall as Trigorin, a commercially successful writer and Irina’s lover, who tags along after her, inciting Konstantin’s simmering jealousy. Elizabeth Moss is Masha, who opens the play by her declaration of existential mourning. (Although Mayer delays this line with business and scene setting.)
The actors, and the rest of the cast, have managed to suggest Chekhov’s group portrait of unrequited, sometimes nostalgic yearning. But the director has busied himself with interrupting and deflecting their opportunities. His persistent cutting and camera movement dissipate emotional insights and the playwright’s carefully structured, gradually accumulating drama. This is especially so in a couple of confrontations between the carelessly self-centered Irina and her wounded son.
There’s a perversely defective quality to much of Mayer’s work. More than many playwrights, Chekhov created mood and atmosphere that could be congenial to moviemaking. You can sense and find Chekhov’s work amidst Mayer’s overemphatic movie, but it shouldn’t be this difficult.
Opening Friday at the Dipson Eastern Hills and North Park theaters.