The Seagull Directed by Michael Mayer
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Annette Bening, Billy Howle, Corey Stoll and Elisabeth Moss
Published May 08, 2018A Russian play dating back to the late 1800s doesn't exactly scream "Hollywood smash," but The Seagull carries the distinct advantage of featuring two red-hot stars at the peak of their game: Saoirse Ronan recently made her A-list turn in Lady Bird, while Elisabeth Moss wows us every week in The Handmaid's Tale. Throw in Annette Bening and some critical buzz from the Tribeca Film Festival, and this film is a compelling family drama in a season otherwise dominated by blockbusters.
In a country home outside of Moscow, a tangled web of jealously emerges involving aspiring playwright Konstantin (Billy Howle), his actress mother Irina (Anette Bening), her successful novelist lover Boris (Corey Stoll), and the naïve neighbour Nina (Saoirse Ronan). Fragile egos abound, as everyone falls in love with the wrong person and spirals into narcissism.
It's a little odd hearing these supposedly 19th century Russian characters speaking in modern American English, so it might have been a good idea to update the setting (the Hamptons, perhaps). Still, it's fairly easy to suspend disbelief, since the characters are deeply realistic and uncomfortably relatable: Irina fears aging, Nina craves fame, Konstantin wants to be taken seriously by his mother, and so on.
The narrative is secondary to character development, as director Michael Mayer effectively paces the story slow enough that we get plenty of time to see Konstantin angrily banging out pieces on piano and Irina poignantly gazing at herself in the mirror. Bening in particular is fantastic in her portrayal of a once-celebrated actress whose star is in decline; she's insufferably vain and an inattentive mother, but her thinly-disguised insecurities elicit sympathy despite her personal flaws.
The Seagull's tone can be jarring, as it shifts between whimsical period comedy and harrowing drama from one scene to the next. At one moment, everyone is bumbling through awkward romances like characters from Pride and Prejudice; the next they're caught up in addiction, mental illness and suicide attempts. Then again, that's life — it's not always sad, it's definitely not fully happy, and it's interesting from start to finish.