The Seagull: spoiler-free review

It was with some trepidation that I went to see the latest film version of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. I had read the play years ago and been unimpressed by its cast of whining aristos and pretentious artists. It is only now having seen the film version that I have realised that the genius in the play is not what is said, but what is not said.

The audience are expected to join the dots as the characters hide information from one another, lie, or simply go about their lives without the need to explain every single detail. A favourite moment is when the estate manager resigns in a huff, storming out of his employer’s house. He, his wife clinging to his shoulders to stop him, his employers and we the audience all know that he’ll be back at work as usual the very next day. But this is not actually mentioned again in the play, nor is it shown, creating the trick that the action is on-going way beyond what appears on stage.

The Seagull is the story of a wealthy Russian family, their friends, their staff and other hangers-on. The matriarch is aging starlet Irina Arkadina whose decision to bring her latest lover to the family summer residence creates chaos. This is successful author Boris Trigorin, who drives Irina’s son mad with jealousy and the neighbour’s daughter Nina mad with desire.

Annette Bening, who plays Irina, is having a bit of a moment, with this performance following her role in the much underrated (and unwatched) Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. In that picture, she was a forgotten actress hooking up with a much younger man (Jamie Bell) and here she is another aging vamp, but one who is desperate to prevent her lover Boris from running away with Nina.

It’s all a bit of a soap opera with a touch of melodrama mixed in (it is Russian, after all). Fortunately, the humour in the performance makes up for the lack of fire in the original script. I prefer wilder Russian works myself, like Gogol’s Dead Souls, or Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, or even Checkhov’s own bitter and angry The Cherry Orchard.

The cinematography is also beautiful. The house is situated on a lake dotted with little islands of rock and scrub. The calm water and warm colours reminded me of the paintings of John Singer Sargent. It deserves the scale that only the cinema screen provides.

This latest version of The Seagull is slow but beautiful, tragic but also funny, and a welcome reintroduction to the works of Chekhov, even if it is difficult to relate to many of the pompous, self-absorbed characters.