The Seagull (2018)

The Seagull is the latest cinematic adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s first major play. Whilst transposing a literary classic into silver screen is a risky business, this version, adopted by Stephen Karam and directed by Michael Mayer, appears infallible on paper due to the (mostly) capable ensemble cast, which is a necessary component of any successful production of Chekhov’s work. Led by Annette Benning as Irina, the involvement of talented actors such as Elisabeth Moss (Masha) and Saoirse Ronan (Nina) should be enough to appease the scepticism concerning the production quality. Yet, The Seagull fails to deliver in a rather spectacular manner. Whilst it is certainly passable as an entertainment piece to savour the (mostly) brilliant ensemble cast, the film must be deemed a catastrophic failure as an adaptation of a Chekhov’s play. Whilst it is perhaps acceptable to simply set this film aside as a pleasing oddity, I am willing to flesh out what caused such a critically significant failing.

What does make a movie with such talented actors go so wrong? Firstly, we can all agree that the film in question fails the original play. Judging by the responses both on and off-line, the director committed numerous major missteps to undermine the great play performed by the (mostly) ideally cast ensemble. Critics have suggested the lack of ‘Russian’ sensibility, clumsy cinematography and the unambitious mise-en-scène as the cause. Some suggest that the mostly Anglophone character of the film is to blame: it was filmed in upstate New York and features mostly American actors speaking ‘American’, an unusual linguistic guest for a period drama from non-English speaking world. Another complains the hasty pace and terrible cinematography: it is too rushed for us to savour the intricacy of dramas simultaneously happening amongst interesting characters. The New York Times’s A. O. Scott denounces the distracting cinematography and demonstrates an incredible critical diligence by noting that, during a scene wherein Irina and Konstantine (Billy Howle) confront, cameras switch 30 times between them, thereby destroying any dramatic effect the actors might have hoped to create on screen. Whilst none is willing to deem the film as an unqualified disaster by virtue of arresting performance by Benning, Ronan, Moss and Stoll, the accumulation of each flaw, taken as a whole, certainly paints an unflattering picture. In fact, The Seagull presents a perfect case for diagnosing a film as a Gestalt, not as an aggregation of its virtues and flaws. This is an unfamiliar mode of evaluation for film critics: they tend to focus on a few stand-out characteristics of a given film, and deliver the final verdict based on what has a lasting impression on them. Whilst such a custom might work for entertainment movies with little substance, it proves problematic in obtaining a proper grasp of any serious work of art. By focusing on a few aspects of the film, both its positives and negatives, critics fail to evaluate The Seagull as what it is: a catastrophic failure. The result is a lukewarm response rather than a serious critical analysis it deserves.

The problem lies in the way in which most critics evaluate a movie; they analyse any given film as an aggregation of technical elements. By treating a cinema as an aggregation of elements rather than a Gestalt, one fails to ask: What could be the cause of all the shortcomings? By not addressing a film as a complex whole, one comes to an evaluation based on a systematically enforced dissonance. Seeing the positives and negatives of a film cancelling out each other, one finds oneself at odds with oneself; quite often one must force oneself to accept the movie one dislikes as being ’good enough'. And, more importantly, this evaluation method prevents one from critically analysing non-technical aspect of cinema; it limits our attention to the formal aspect of art, not the thought embedded in it or the meaning of such a thought, thereby severely limiting the definition and the scope of what cinematic art could be. Bing satisfied by judging further theoretical scrutiny unnecessary, one feeds a prevailing attitude toward cinema: both the director and the audience expect nothing but a showcase of acting talents in a movie. This is problematic since it is the director’s job to give talented actors a framework, or a vision, if you will, to rise to the occasion. Without such a vision from the director, cinema becomes ‘trite’ reproduction of clichés. Therefore, to understand why Mayer’s The Seagull is a catastrophic failure, one cannot be satisfied by resorting to a routine technical evaluation. If you think that a better cinematography, an all-Russian cast in Russia, or a more accurate script would fix the movie, you are terribly mistaken. A catastrophe does not happen because of the accumulation of failures: rather, failures become catastrophic due to our incomprehension. Then the question regarding Mayer’s The Seagull is: What would have caused the failure of this magnitude? The answer to this question hinges on the understanding of one concept, that is; the famous Chekhovian notion of ‘comedy’. One can explain all the failings in this film as the result of Mayer’s misconstruction of the concept that gives Chokhovian dramas their distinction.

Before examining this concept, it is important to understand how Chekhovian ‘comedy’ is construed and presented by Mayer. Judging from what we see, it is clear that Mayer sees and presents The Seagull as a comedy in a conventional sense. And this in turn explains Mayer’s directorial decisions: the light-heartedness emphasised with the breathless pace, the restless cinematography, the giddy music, and some casting choices. Whilst Mayer’s misdirection is evident in all aspects of cinema, in order to grasp his idea of Chekhovian drama, there is no better place to begin than Corey Stoll’s brilliant performance, for Stoll’s Boris represents the essence of Mayer’s idea of Chekhovian drama: a comedy made profound by the famous Chekhovian 'pathos'. And thus, despite the rendition of Konstantin being far more problematic in its own way, I shall focus now on the casting and the performance of this talented American actor. To begin with, Stoll’s version is too likeable and too solid: his Boris lacks neuroticism which strongly hints the sinister aspect of this character. His delivery and presence is so fittingly benign for the present production that one struggles to comprehend the story about his callous cruelties toward Nina: at first we refuse to believe Boris committed such actions, then we begin to make excuses on his behalf. They say: he may have been a ‘bad boy’ but he cannot be blamed for the naïveté of a country girl with no adequate education and guidance. Boris, despite his flaws, is a ‘good man’, and Stoll has a perfect look for such a characterisation. In Stoll, Boris is a man whose failings are taken as the proof of his great character: he is too sensitive to avoid moral complications, and thus falls for nearly every pitfall of life (meaning: his numerous admirers of opposite sex). He is a celebrated artist after all.

Whilst none seems to mind such a rendition of Boris, if one removes oneself from a traditional view of Chekhov and engage with the text itself, it becomes clear that Stoll is too healthy and agreeable as Chekhov’s Trigorin who secretly suffers from the sickness unto death, that is, a serious neurosis arising from the lack of meaning to his earthly existence. This terrible internal abyss silently ravages every character of this play, yet Mayer choses to underplay it for one reason: the sense of existential alienation so eloquently stated by Marsha is not a subject fit for a comedy, notwithstanding the fact that he has let the cinema plunge into the bottomless abyss at the end, instead of respecting the ambiguity of the original play. Despite this final faux-pas, the overall tone of the movie is light and entertaining. Stoll’s Boris fits perfectly with Mayer's vision of the movie, and Stoll cannot be blamed for it. He is young, healthy, charismatic and absolutely charming despite his character’s degeneration. It is nearly impossible to hate Stoll's Boris, and this is a major problem in this adaptation, for Stoll’s Boris sets the tone for the entire movie as the nexus of all major characters in this production. Through the various contacts Boris makes, he constructs meaningful interactions with all three major female characters: Irina as his possessive lover; Nina as the means of escaping from his predicament; and Masha as his comrade in misery whose name is Konstantin. Hence it is no exaggeration to say that Stoll’s rendition of Boris has a determining effect on how his respective counterpart plays her role. The trouble is: Chekhov’s Boris is anything but Stoll’s. Despite appearances, Boris is someone who has lost the battle with his demons before it even began. He is poised and well composed, yet this outwardly charming character is far more corrupted than Stoll makes us believe. If Mayer has properly appreciated this aspect of Boris, then the director would have chosen a different actor for this role: Stoll is too robust and solid in his earthly existence. Yet, his excellent performance does fit Mayer's vision of The Seagull as a comedy with some depth. Whilst this characterisation of Chekhov’s work is well-respected, the latest film adaptation has left us wondering why a seemingly infallible formula has failed to move us. According to the accepted convention of Chekhov adaptation, a production with such a great cast simply cannot miss the mark. The problem is: despite appearance, there is nothing conventional about Chekhov’s play. To fully appreciate Chekhov’s contribution to modern theatre, one must distance ourselves from the popular myth about this great Russian and probe what he exactly meant by the notion of ‘comedy’. And this is precisely where Mayer and Karam find themselves at fault.

To be fair, the Chekhov myth is not a mere misconstruction originated from the Anglophone literary world: if you ask a Russian about her/their/his favourite author, the answer is most likely: Anton Chekhov. The author of The Seagull is someone who has been highly regarded not only for his literary output but also for his character, and for good reasons. His report on a Russian penal colony in Sakhalin region and his contribution as a landowner and a doctor in the estate of Melikhovo justify his reputation as a great humanitarian. As a doctor, he came across all walks of life and his experience as a volunteering doctor in his estate considerably deepened his understanding of human suffering. Whilst the admiration toward him as a great humanitarian author is justified, that is not to say that his work is compromised with sentimentalism. His observation of humanity is cooly objective, as we can see in his notebook entry on human condition: ‘Aristocrats? The same ugly bodies and physical uncleanliness, the same toothless old age and disgusting death, as with market-women.’ ([Notebook]) Whilst his humanitarian service as a country doctor made him a sort of folk-hero of modern Russian literature in Russia, he was not a forgiving apostle. When Chekhov confronted his brother’s tyrannical treatment of his wife, his objection was not only persuasive: it was personal and furious. As one can see in his objective yet condemning description of the appalling degeneration of Sakhalin, his indignation against the source of unnecessary miseries, be it state-sanctioned or personal, was sharp. And his humanitarian impulse, unlike many of his contemporaries such as Tolstoy, was not religiously inspired; he spent last years of his life as an atheist. Hence it must be clear by now: Chekhov never allowed himself to fall for the complacency of sentimentalism, which is sometimes conflated as Chekhovian 'pathos': whilst he may be less condemning of human follies, he is not going to give us absolution out of all-embracing 'brotherly love'. And this blind adherence to the myth of Chekhov the man proves to be a major disservice to the author and his audience. One of many problems with Mayer’s directorial decision is the character development of two male characters, that is, Dr. Dorn and Boris. The way they are presented in this film is undoubtedly influenced by the myth of Chekhov the man: they are flawed yet ‘good’ humans just as Chekhov is imagined to be. Yet, in Chekhov's play, each of these male characters enjoys distinct traits of his own. Dr. Dorn is not a warm and charming humanist as Mayer represents: Chekhov observes his superiority complex quite clearly in his play. Boris is neither as likeable or sensitive as Stoll makes us believe: whilst he is not an outright villain, his neuroticism is quietly toxic. Hence it is important to note the distinction between Chekhov ‘the man’ and Chekhov the author. Whilst Chekhov is indeed a great humanitarian, his engagement with the human condition is objective. It is clear that Chekhov’s grasp of each character’s psychology is clinically accurate without condemning them. This unaffected clear-sightedness is one of the traits which distinguishes Chekhovian drama from great pre-modern theatre represented by the likes of Shakespeare. Like the dead bird in the play, Chekhovian characters do not soar to the celebrated height of drama and poetry: instead we are presented with realistic humans who are neither heroes nor villains. His plays and stories present miniatures of lives with sober precision as if they are reported by a man without qualities (It is interesting to note that Chekhov was a practitioner of medical science whilst Musil was trained as an engineer). This is precisely why Chekhov’s plays are unconventional: they are ‘anti-drama’ according to the convention of his days. Notwithstanding the understated nature of his voice, Chekhov was far ahead of his time, and, in some respect, he still is.

Then, the question is: What did Chekhov mean by ‘comedy’? Whilst the author himself was never willing to explain the reasons for this definition, by reading The Seagull, one realises that there are two reasons for Chekhov’s insistence. Firstly, there is a negative definition of ‘comedy’, that is, the lack of 'tragedy'. It is well documented that The Seagull consists of ample references to Hamlet, one of the quintessential cannons of tragedy. In this respect The Seagull’s characters could be understood as the shadows of Shakespeare’s: Konstantin as Hamlet, Irina as Gertrude, Nina and Masha as Ophelia, and Boris as Claudius. It is interesting to note that Hamlet does not qualify as a proper tragedy according to Hegel. For the philosopher, a tragedy is about the unnecessary conflict between equally noble causes. The clash of honours is unnecessary because a ‘hero’ is acting on a false notion that the correctness of her/their/his respectable position is absolute, and thus rejecting the possibility that her/their/his counterpart’s position may be just as ‘honourable’. By espousing this falsity, protagonists of tragedy stand their own ground, and the world irreversibly moves toward the violent end. Whilst Prince Hamlet appears to fit this definition perfectly, he lacks proper counterparts: since Claudius is a treacherous murderer, he has no honourable cause. Laertes, who is determined to avenge his sister’s death, would qualify as a proper counterpart in a tragedy, yet his part is too small to alter the evaluation of the play. In The Seagull, Chekhov’s genius lies in the fact that there is no clash of ‘just causes’. Whilst afflictions enacted by these characters are very real and human, there is no 'nobility' in them. Chekhov’s drama consists of an uncoordinated dance of commonplace human follies originating from each character’s unremarkable flaws. There are no gods, heroes or monsters in his play; just ordinary humans making each other suffer because of their respective defects. Each character is completely oblivious of the consequences of their actions/inactions upon others, and the stage, just like in life, is dictated by a great dissonance. Despite the seriousness of sufferings observed, Chekhov’s characters and their grievances are too foolish to become tragic. In addition, one must note the lack of catharsis in Chekhov’s drama: there is no climactic conclusion in his plays. Whilst The Seagull ends with a ‘bang’, it is not clear that Konstantin will survive his second suicide attempt. It could well be that Konstantin finally succeeds in ending his misery; or he survives again and life simply goes on. And it seems that, even if he succeeds, his death will have little impact. Irina and Boris would be relieved to rid of the source of their miseries. Nina would go on to perform in small productions. Masha will continue to love him yet carry on with her miserable marriage. And Sorin, who is closest to Konstantin, would soon die. Unlike Hamlet, Konstantin is unable to take the world down with him. He would be a small footnote to other’s lives, just as he always has been. Hence one can conclude: Chekhovian drama cannot be tragic due to the complete lack of traditionally accepted theatrical norms: there is no clash of ‘nobilities’, no catharsis, no climactic development, and no clear conclusion.

Secondly, there is a positive reason why Chekhov considered his play a comedy despite the darkness lurking beneath the surface. Every personal squabble, trouble and grievance occurs in The Seagull is based on the falsity of each character. Irina mistakenly believes that she can outrun her age by ‘putting a show’. Boris falsely and wrongfully draws Nina in to his mid-life crisis by falsely believing that the ‘love’ of a 19-year-old girl would give his hollow existence a meaning. Nina thinks that fame would make her happy, and Konstantin believes in his ‘new form’ of art. And Masha hopes to kill her love for Konstantin by entering loveless union with the man she despises. Whilst the display of such human follies is not tragic, it is a profoundly sad state of affairs. That being acknowledged, we must also note: there is a sense of a certain detachment to the description of each and every character in this play. One would not focus on one or two characters of The Seagull in the way one does in a traditional play such as Hamlet. As realistic as they are, Chekhovian protagonists do not have the absorbing quality of their great predecessors. A part of the reasons for it is the complexity of each character construed by Chekhov: observing each and every character’s respective descent to destruction does not make us simply laugh, smile or anguish. The actor who exemplifies this in the movie is Elisabeth Moss. Whilst she creates memorable moments with her deadpan comedy, she does so by also conveying the excruciating pain and despair suffered by her character, Masha. Her Weltschmerz is so damning and Moss’ expression so acute that one cannot possibly find her suffering amusing or entertaining. And yet, one observes her candid admission of the damning alienation, the existential angst of the first order, without being affected. Whilst Chekhov’s method is unlike Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt in that the alienation of the audience from the play in question is not explicit, the affective distance created by the Russian author between his drama and the audience is just as effective. When we attend Chekhov’s play, we are here to observe a comedy of errors committed by various characters not because of blinding passions or conflicting wills; it is because of ordinary human fallibility. In The Seagull, this affective distance is enforced by the ambiguity which are most explicitly pronounced at the end of play: firstly it is not altogether clear whether Konstantin manages to kill himself this time; and secondly it is not clear how should we feel about the possible outcomes. Whilst we certainly do not wish his death, we also find it unbearable to see him so undignified by surviving yet another clumsy suicide attempt. And this ambiguity applies to all major characters. For example, Nina is so selfishly foolish in that we feel a sort of Schadenfreude upon hearing her struggles. Yet, we are also genuinely sorry to witness her misery which seemingly has destabilised her mind: her final ‘conversation’ with Konstantin is so strange that one cannot help but suspecting her insanity. This ambiguity also applies to lesser characters such as Dr Dorn and Medvedenko. The doctor is certainly charming, yet, unlike in Mayer’s version, he has some sharp edge to his character in the original play. He is arrogant and incompetent, yet he can be understanding, and even caring on occasions. Medvedenko is someone we at once pity and despise. By feeling conflicting affections to each and every character, the audience is constantly made aware of their respective affective state, thereby unable to lose oneself in the events unfolding in front of them. Yet such an affective alienation is not to induce cynicism in the audience. The effect of Chekhovian dramaturge is arguably pedagogical: by cooly observing comedy of errors without praising or condemning any particular characters, we attain a detached perspective of human condition not dissimilar with that of Spinoza who attempted to observe human nature as if an astronomer studying the heavenly bodies. The difference between the Russian writer and the Dutch philosopher is that Chekhov did not try to explain away human follies: he preferred to let the comedy of errors play itself out in front of the audience. Whilst his tone is not as sharp as some of his contemporaries, and certainly not as feverish as Dostoevsky’s, what he presents to us is nonetheless quite dark. Yet, in choosing to tell the stories of these lives, he does offer us an opportunity to reflect upon our own follies and false consciousness. Thus, if Chekhov manages to induce a smile or two to the audience, such a moment of amusement comes with a profound wariness: we smile because we recognise ourselves in this ‘comedy’ in one way or another. Yet this recognition also comes with a profound wariness regarding human condition.

By failing to appreciate the above points, Mayer and Karam turn this enduring masterpiece into a badly composed costume drama reminiscent of Marchant-Ivory production films. In this specific regard, the catastrophic nature of their vision is most evident in the cast and the mise-en-scène of Konstantin. Played by Billy Howle in earnest, the British actor’s effort wildly misfires due to the misconstruction of this character by Mayer and Karam. In happiness, Howle's expression of euphoria is so self-indulging that one can hardly watch without being deeply embarrassed: he is as ludicrous as George Emerson (Julian Sands) from A Room with a View (1985). In misery, he is as wooden as a marionette. In a few critical moments when Konstantin confronts Irina or Nina, Howle’s Konstantin is so one-dimensional that it is very hard to sympathise with his afflictions. To be fair, Howle cannot be entirely at fault; he is delivering what is written in the script and what the director wants to see. Whilst we do not know how the casting influenced the script and the mise-en-scène, it is clear that Karam and Mayer’s construction of Konstantin is completely off the mark. Rather than conveying Konstantin's spleen, Mayer, Karam and Howle have chosen to ‘emasculate’ this character, thereby turning him into an indignant brat who is oblivious to the miseries he continues to inflict upon himself and his unwilling company. Howle’s Konstantin is just as self-absorbed as his narcissist mother, thereby rendering his antagonism toward the diva and her famous lover petty. As we can see now, Mayer and Karam’s version fails not because of some technical missteps: it is because of their fundamental misunderstanding of what Chekhov intended with his play. If the director and the writer properly appreciated the nature of Chekhovian ‘comedy’ and the play, they could not have set forth such a memorable disaster.

Then, is this movie worth watching at all? The answer is strongly positive, for three reasons. Firstly, we must appreciate the fact that some failures are critically important. A catastrophic failure like Mayer’s The Seagull must prompt critical reevaluation of Chekhov the author as well as his concept of play. Secondly, despite the misconstruction of male characters, female counterparts are brilliantly performed. Benning is impressive as Irina, and Moss deftly delivers moments of dark comedy to ‘brighten’ the scenes. Ronan is flawless as a gullible country girl throughout the movie, yet she saves her best performance to the last: she provides one of the most haunting performances of her career as a destitute and desperate young woman who practically lost everything in a blink. It is a crying shame that her last encounter with Konstantin is not performed with a better actor, not to mention how rushed the entire sequence is. And this brings us to the third reason why you should critically engage with this movie: imagining the way to recast and redirect the cinematic adaptation of this great play. Firstly, if you please indulge me, I would love to see Cillian Murphy as Konstantin. He would have brought a perfect mixture of melancholy, sensitivity, intellect and the sense of displacement in this world. The tender and vulnerable side of Konstantin, so blatantly dismissed in the present film, would be gloriously restored by this great Irish. Konstantin is one of the key roles of the play, and, as far as yours truly is concerned, there is no better actor than Murphy to express the dire affliction Konstantin suffers without making his character self-indulgent. Murphy has the right temperament and look for this role, and given his acting calibre, it is unthinkable that nobody in the production considered his service seriously. Boris should have been played by Jude Law: he would portray this character as a neurotic man in mid-life crisis. Law can be subtly sinister and steely, and he regularly excels in performing hopelessly conflicted and flawed character. And more importantly, Law would have injected much needed magnetism and intensity to this character. Seeing Konstantin and Boris enacted by the actors of similar age adds another dimension to the play: it greatly justifies Konstantin’s disapproval of Boris as his mother’s lover by: 1) highlighting Irina’s indifference toward her son; 2) rendering the lover’s relation altogether Freudian; 3) accentuating the age difference between Boris and Nina, thereby signifying the exploitative nature of Boris’ interest in Nina; and 4) sharpening the contrasting social standings of Boris and Konstantin. And Dr Dorn could have been perfect if Gabriel Byrne would accept the offer: he could portray some nasty edge of this character without becoming insufferable.

Still, after all is said and done, The Seagull goes down to history as one of the missed opportunities, albeit a very interesting one in the manner of its failure. Whilst Walter Benjamin is right to appreciate the importance of failed projects, it is hard not to contemplate alternative outcomes before beginning to feel the effect of the Weltschmerz of our own.