As I mentioned in a long-ago review for another film, I have a personal connection to Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, having once worked on a screen adaptation for more than a year. I was hired by Foreign Correspondents star Yelena Danova and her friend Olga Vodin, who envisioned a Seagull set in contemporary Malibu. The update wasn't that much of a stretch, as the story concerns a famous but aging actress and her various hangers-on, with everybody in love with the wrong person. In the end, my screenplay worked. It was funny, it was irreverent, it was faithful to Chekhov's worldview... and it was never produced.
Two decades later, a proper – too proper – adaptation of The Seagull emerges. There are no updates here: The Seagull takes place in early 20th century Russia and most of the dialogue is Chekhov's own. (Stephen Karam is credited with the screenplay.) Director Michael Mayer swoops his camera around and makes use of claustrophobic closeups, apparently to make his film feel less stagy. It sort of works. But he fails to capture the author's distinctly wry take on human nature. Done right, The Seagull is quite funny, even if it is ultimately a tragedy. Chekhov's characters can be silly, pompous, thoughtful, foolish, lovable, and frustrating – often at the same time. Mayer, a director of no great repute, takes his Chekhov too seriously, and his resulting film is a drag.
Annette Bening is perfectly cast as Irina, the aforementioned famous-but-aging actress. She is one of the few cast members to breathe life into the proceedings, along with Brian Dennehy as her brother Sorin, who gets the funniest lines as per Chekhov. Elisabeth Moss, as the lovesick Masha, occasionally nails that ideal Chekhovian blend of melancholy and dry humor. (My one revelation while watching this film was that Mad Men, the show that made Moss famous, was actually very Chekhovian.) She's such a savvy performer that it's possible she maintained that ideal in every scene, then Mayer sometimes chose the wrong take due to his own tone deafness.
Other cast members fare worse. As Nina, an ambitious young actress, the usually dependable Saoirse Ronan can't reconcile Chekhov's archaic dialogue with her faux American accent, and her squeaky delivery detracts from her performance. (The entire cast performs as Americans – no "Vot is de matter, my darlink?" impressions here, thank goodness.) Born villain Corey Stoll is miscast as Boris, a celebrated writer attached to Irina but with eyes for Nina. He's a good actor, but he has chemistry with no one. And ultimately, every version of The Seagull rests on the very tricky character of Konstantin, Irina's son, an idealistic and moody young writer. He's hard to like, yet for the story to work, you must ultimately find him sympathetic. English actor Billy Howle's Konstantin is serious, intense, and unbearable.
Unless you're studying the play for school and want to see a sort of CliffsNotes version, this stiff Seagull is a miss. As for me, it just made me sad that, false modesty be damned, the far better adaptation I wrote with Yelena and Olga will never get made.