*. Anton Chekhov called The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard comedies. What he meant by this has been debated ever since. Especially given that The Seagull seems a morally earnest play with a decidedly downbeat ending.
*. Still, some people see the use of “comedy” as Dantean, meaning they find a positive, redemptive message in Nina’s speech at the end. I don’t. She just seems to have given up on any youthful dreams and accepted her rather miserable lot, coming to see life no longer as striving for achieving much of anything but only as a vale of sorrows to be endured.
*. Another reading is that the nature of the action is meant to be comic in a Shakespearean sense. A tale of lovers in the forest overcoming various obstacles. But here the obstacles aren’t overcome. Or is it a satire of the Russian theatre at the time? This I can see a bit of, but as satire goes it seems indifferently directed at any particular target and Chekov is too humane a playwright to want us to laugh in a harsh way at any of these people. They can be silly, but they’re all unhappy in one way or another.
*. All of which is just to say that while this may feel like a heavy adaptation of the play, I think it’s quite faithful. I find it a play filled with sadness. Konstantin is so idealistic, and so second-rate. Nina is a budding narcissist, as she probably should be (it’s served Irina well in her career), but she’s second-rate too. Boris may have some talent, but he’s jaded and a kept man. He’s second-rate too, as a person.
*. I see it as a tragedy of the second rate. This crowd can fool themselves with being important while at the cottage, but one gets the feeling they’re not such big fish in Moscow. Maybe Irina is a minor celebrity. Boris probably isn’t as big a deal as Nina imagines him to be. But everyone thinks they’re a star. Or at least that they could be a star. Even the schoolteacher thinks a play about a schoolteacher would be a winner.
*. It’s an ensemble cast, which works well with this theme as there aren’t any stars aside from Annette Bening, who is playing a star. Saoirise Ronan is believable as being young and dreaming for all the wrong things in life. Corey Stoll has just enough of the heel about him. But Elisabeth Moss comes closest to stealing the show as the bitter Masha. Bitter and loving it, in that self-destructive way such people have. Would she have been happy with Konstantin? Not a chance.
*. It all looks nice, and a resort in the Hudson Valley is probably as close an analog to a pre-revolutionary Russian estate as you can expect. There are also a few nice gestures in making this a movie and not just a staged play. I like the outing on the rowboat with Boris and Nina, and his face rocking closer to hers in what seems an imitation of coitus that never quite consummates in a kiss. Meanwhile, Irina and Konstantin observe from a distance, deciding on their own plans of action.
*. But the film needed more of this. It’s an understated production of a play that almost makes a fetish of understatement. The offstage (offscreen) suicide is just the climax of this restraint. There’s a big name-calling scene between Irina and Konstantin that’s been added (at least I don’t recall it from the play) and while it doesn’t seem entirely out of place I don’t think it quite works. It seems too modern, and for all I recognize in Chekov I keep wondering if he’s really our contemporary. As types these people still exist, but as individuals? The world has changed too much.