One of the characteristics that makes Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull so timeless is its message about the friction between the avant-garde and the traditional. In the play, Chekhov used symbolism—an avant-garde approach in 1896—to draw parallels between natural and metaphysical worlds. By infusing this conceit into the conventional scenario of a family melodrama, Chekhov showed the limits of the prevailing aesthetic mode of naturalism while simultaneously revealing naturalism’s unrealized potential for exploring new ideas unleashed by the purveyors of the Symbolist movement.
Michael Mayer’s film adaptation, while certainly reverential to Chekhov’s classic, feels utterly conventional in today’s cinematic landscape. The dialectic between the new and the old, the present and the future, remains at the heart of the plot. And the primary representatives of these two poles are still aspiring symbolist playwright Constantine (Billy Howle) and established naturalist writer Trigorin (Corey Stoll). The two fight about the future of literature as well as the hearts of Irina (Annette Bening), Constantine’s mother and Trigorin’s lover, and Nina (Saoirse Ronan), Constantine’s teenage muse.
Throughout The Seagull and this latest adaptation, both Irina and Nina gravitate toward Trigorin, who’s considered to be the better artist. But where Chekhov questions Trigorin’s ostensible superiority by showing him to be morally inferior to Constantine, Mayer conveys the tension between the conventional and the avant-garde in the film’s surface narrative without identifying and exploring its further implications for contemporary art.
Doctor Dorn (Jon Tenney), whose views most closely align with Chekhov’s, is the only character in The Seagull who professes to enjoy Constantine’s work. The doctor encourages Constantine after his mother humiliates him by heckling his latest play; it’s a symbolic castration of the Oedipal variety that marks one of many forms of intertextuality between Chekhov’s play and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. However, the filmmakers do little to explore this connection, content to let it lie on the surface. This is one of many ways in which Mayer’s film is content to merely present Chekhov’s ideas rather than grapple with their provocative and complex subtexts.
If Constantine’s ultimate fate in The Seagull suggests that his futurist art has no future, Trigorin is presented as the artist of the here and now. Like Chekhov’s play, Trigorin’s stories combine a naturalist setting with symbolist overtones to create an art of the fin-de-siècle moment that’s nevertheless reaching toward the future. Trigorin writes a story based on the characters around him and then brings it to life through his own machinations, like a demiurge toying with its creations. His affair with Nina starts on the page and the realm of his fiction and ends as reality in the narrative of the play.
In Chekhov’s fiction, truth imitates art, whose veracious relationship to reality is seductively deceptive. Trigorin abuses his powers of storytelling to alter the course of the real world, and to tragic effect. Chekhov warns about the responsibility of artists to conscientiously wield their authority. The Seagull is a manifestation of his belief that ideas have real effects, a belief that Mayer and screenwriter Stephen Karam do not appear to share, given their preference for the play’s surface textures over its philosophically rich depths.
The Seagull’s subtly constructed ambivalence about its characters and the nuances at work between the personas and ideas expressed in the play open it up to almost infinite possibilities of interpretation and account for its continued ubiquitous presence on stages around the world. Ironic and sincere in equal measure, often in the same moment, the work is both tragedy and comedy, which Mayer understands, finding the simultaneous laughs and heartache in individual moments throughout his adaptation.
Playing a famous actress approaching her twilight years, Benning hits uncomfortably close to home, as a performance in this role should. She expresses Irina’s narcissism in a manner that highlights the character’s calculating use of a false naïveté to achieve her desired ends. Irina’s tragedy lies in the price she has to pay for achieving her goals. Benning succeeds in capturing Irina’s insecurity, thereby rendering her character sympathetic despite the woman’s selfish, destructive behavior.
Ronan as the ingénue and Stoll as the genius create similarly Janus-like performances that dissolve the barrier between the actor and the character while commenting on the inherent pretense of simultaneously performing and being such types. Only Howle fails to elicit sympathy for his character, portraying Constantine as a melodramatic teen rather than as a young man emotionally crippled by his familial and social circumstances.
This film is crafted with a straightforwardness that mimics the deceptive simplicity of Chekhov’s masterwork. But Mayer pays mere lip service to Chekhov’s concerns about the true nature of representation, the relationship between artifice and reality, and the playwright’s moral duty to society. Throughout, Mayer and Karam show no sign that they fully considered how these questions, self-reflexively or otherwise, relate to their own creation.