The Seagull is such a small movie that I doubt anyone reading this has heard about it. It was briefly released to theaters on the coasts and a few major markets beyond but didn’t make an impact and was shunted to home video in rather short order. I would not have taken note of it except that it stars Academy Award nominee Saorise Ronan, who happens to be one of my favorite actors working today.
I count myself very lucky that I am such a fan because The Seagull is one of my favorite movies of 2018. This ode to unrequited love has just about everything I love in a good family drama. The cast is a dream, the production is elegant, there are laughs, there are tears and their are moments of incredibly raw and beautiful emotional insight. There are characters who are villains and their characters who are brokenhearted victims and there are beautiful characters in between to witness it all. What a glorious movie.
The Seagull, based on a play by Anton Chekhov, is set in a 19th century suburb of Moscow. An elderly man, Sorin (Brian Dennehy), lies on his deathbed. His sister, Irina (Annette Bening) has been called to his bedside, abandoning her curtain call on the Moscow stage. Irina arrives accompanied by Boris (Corey Stoll) who immediately strikes an awkward tone with Irina’s son, Konstantin (Billy Howle). We assume we understand their tension but we will learn so much more through the course of this story.
The house is bubbling with life with Irina’s longtime caretaker Polina (Mare Winningham) fussing over everyone and her daughter Masha (Elizabeth Moss), already wearing black and appearing to be in mourning. Then there is the wise doctor, Dr. Dorn (Jon Tenney) doing his best to make Sorin comfortable by managing his pain and managing the many family members wandering in and out of the scene.
You might assume that such a fuss over Sorin would mean he’s not merely beloved, but also a patriarch and standard-bearer, a breadwinner. Sorin is some of those things but The Seagull has you by your perceptions in the first act and then uses a flashback device to upend your many expectations. Nothing is what you see in the first act and there is so much more depth and sorrow and wonder to be found in this wonderfully told story.
At the end of the first act, we meet Nina (Saorise Ronan). Again, we assume her role in this as Konstantin’s true love and the beginning of the second act, the start of the flashback appears to bear that out but director Michael Mayer and screenwriter Stephen Karam, who adapted Chekhov’s play, have something in store for you, likely the same surprises that Chekhov had for audiences decades ago.
The Seagull is about unrequited love and not great romance. The film is filled with tragic false starts and failures and desperate compromises. Don’t get me wrong, I know I am painting very negative picture, but believe me, the film has as much light and passion as it does sadness and despair. This remarkable group of actors delivers one great moment after another as they reel you in, hold you close and perhaps break your heart along with their own.
This is a masterfully acted movie. I became immediately invested in these performances. I have not seen much of Billy Howle but he won me over quickly as the tortured young genius, Konstantin. I bought in on his desperate attempts at recreating the art of the stage play and his struggle to do something new and innovative with the form. I also adored his chemistry with Saorise Ronan and found myself deeply affected by the rough course of their relationship.
Annette Bening is also a standout in The Seagull. She has a scene late in the movie with Corey Stoll’s Boris that is among the most masterfully performed scenes of 2018. The writing in this moment zings but it takes a pair of incredibly convicted performers to deliver these lines and wildly conflicting emotional beats and Bening and Stoll were magnificent. They legitimately, took my breath away by the time the scene had finished.
I don't want to go on too long with this review as I have already stated such praise for it, but I would be remiss if I did not also single out the perfomance of Emmy winner Elizabeth Moss. Moss, best known for her work on Mad Men, plays Masha, a sad woman who is desperately in love with Konstantin, who, because of Nina, can never return Masha's feelings. It's a sad story but Moss's performance isn't sad, it's bitter and feisty and it's marked by some of the deadliest lines in the movie. Moss's dark sense of humor is what keeps the film dipping into melancholy. That and Annette Bening's unending sunniness in the face of sadness.
Michael Mayer is not a director I am all that familiar with. I vaguely recall his 2004 debut feature, A Home at the End of the World but it didn’t linger much in my memory. He’s worked mostly in television since then. I will be keeping an eye out for him from now on. You could argue that Anton Chekhov probably did much of the hard work on The Seagull but it is a great director who can make way for a story to truly sing and transcend our expectations.
The Seagull is among my favorite movies of 2018.