When Sidney Lumet filmed a complete version of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” in 1962, producer/distributor Joseph E. Levine slashed more than a half-hour from its three-hour running-time before sending it into the hinterlands, opining that it would be a tragedy if moviegoers outside the big cities never got a chance to see the masterpiece. (They avoided it in droves anyway, of course.) Whether it’s appropriate to rework masterpieces to make them more accessible to modern audiences is an issue raised once more by this new version of Anton Chekhov’s 1896 play, along with “The Cherry Orchard” certainly his best-known. Writer Stephen Karam and director Michael Mayer have severely abridged and reshaped “The Seagull” for their screen adaptation, and some might consider the result a travesty. But on stage new approaches to classics occur all the time, and no one seems to complain at the process—though they might take exception to how it turns out. And in this case while some of the original’s tone and complexity is lost in the translation, taken on its own terms the film is actually quite effective.
It is very traditional in terms of time and setting. It’s the close of the nineteenth century, and except for a few brief scenes in a Moscow theatre, the action is limited to an estate well outside the city. Resident there are Sorin (Brian Dennehy), the elderly owner; his nephew Konstantin (Billy Howle); and their staff, the steward Ilya (Glenn Fleshler), his wife Polina (Mare Winningham) and their daughter Masha (Elisabeth Moss), whose love for Konstantin goes unrequited. Frequent local visitors are Dr. Dorn (Jon Tenney) and Medvedenko (Michael Zegen), a schoolteacher who loves Masha. Living nearby is beautiful Nina (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring actress with whom Konstantin, himself an aspiring playwright, is in love. The drama occurs during occasional visits by Konstantin’s mother Irina (Annette Bening), a famous actress from Moscow, and her current gentleman friend Trigorin (Corey Stoll), an illustrious writer.
In the crudest sense, one can describe the plot as a sort of tragic romantic roundelay. Konstantin’s love for Nina cannot compete with her infatuation with Trigorin, and the older man reciprocates, unleashing Irina’s jealousy, although in the end his attachment proves fleeting. Masha’s failure to put a dent in Konstantin’s distaste for her drives her to drink, while impoverished Medvedenko is equally unsuccessful in getting Masha to treat him seriously, even after they wed. Meanwhile Sorin, Polina and Dorn look on ruefully with a mixture of sympathy and sadness.
Chekhov also has other issues in mind: the nature and purpose of art, the relation between fiction and reality, the disappointments of youthful dreams and the pain of disillusionment. In reshuffling and abridging the play for the screen, Karam and Mayer haven’t ignored these themes, but they have muted them in favor of portraying the intricacies of the personal relationships. Certainly their decision to create a foreshadowing by beginning with Chekhov’s denouement and then flashing backward in time to work up to it again is misguided.
The efforts of its estimable cast, however, make this imperfect reworking of Chekhov’s play worth seeing. Bening, in the midst of her career resurgence, captures Irina’s combination of hauteur and insecurity, and the remarkable Ronan brings to Nina the requisite mixture of innocence and ambition. Moss and Willingham can convey a world of emotion in a simple gesture, while Dennehy’s Sorin exudes both joviality and world-weariness and Tenney the feeling that Dorn has seen it all before. Stoll’s reading of Trigorin is much less critical than is often the case in treatments of the character; this writer may be seriously flawed, but he is not a simple villain. Howle struggles with Konstantin, perhaps the weakest character of the lot, a young man driven by forces he cannot understand or control; he never manages to pin down the young man’s center, but then few actors do. Matthew J. Lloyd’s cinematography, sun-dappled in the outdoor scenes, is more nervous than might be ideal, and the score by Nico Muhly and Anton Sariko sometimes feel tonally off-key. But Jane Musky’s production design and Ann Roth’s costumes are evocative.
This is a version of Chekhov’s play that will probably appeal most to viewers relatively unfamiliar with the work, and likely to irritate those who love it. But while one can disagree with some of the choices Karam and Mayer have made, theirs is a serious attempt to grapple with a classic, and they have certainly assembled an excellent cast to realize their vision. A viewer interested in experiencing the play in its full form is directed to the 1968 film of it made—once again—by Sidney Lumet. Despite a few strange casting choices it’s a dependable, if arguably overly reverential, treatment.