(Release Info London schedule; September 7th, 2018, Electric Cinema, 64 - 66 Redchurch, 18:15)
One summer at a lakeside Russian estate, friends and family gather for a weekend in the countryside. While everyone is caught up in passionately loving someone who loves somebody else, a tragicomedy unfolds about art, fame, human folly, and the eternal desire to live a purposeful life. The estate is owned by Sorin (Brian Dennehy), a retired government employee, and his sister Irina (Annette Bening), a legendary actress of the Moscow stage. Irina is imperious, narcissistic and selfish, and anxious about holding on to her star status and the affections of her younger lover, Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), a successful writer of short stories. Irina constantly belittles her aspiring writer son Konstantin (Billy Howle), perhaps because his existence as a grown man reminds her that age is catching up with her. While he adores his mother despite her cruelty, Konstantin acts out his insecurity and anger by rejecting both her style of theatre and Boris’s writing, declaring them old-fashioned and banal. A dreamer, Konstantin declares he will create bold and superior new forms of theatre and literature. Konstantin, who grew up on the estate, is head over heels in love with Nina (Saoirse Ronan), a beautiful and naïve local girl who dreams of being an actress.
Nina is flattered when Konstantin gives her the starring role in his newly written play, but soon after encountering Boris, she rejects Konstantin, and pursues the handsome and famous writer instead. Masha (Elisabeth Moss), the forlorn, black-clad, self-medicating daughter of Sorin’s estate manager Shamrayev (Glenn Fleshler) and his wife Polina (Mare Winningham), suffers an unrequited love for Konstantin, who insensitively spurns her. She scorns the insipid schoolteacher Medvedenko (Michael Zegen), who refuses to be discouraged by her rejection and accepts any crumbs of attention she drops him. Polina aches for the charismatic country doctor Dorn (Jon Tenney), who, pays her some attention, but still relishes the connection with Irina with whom he had an affair years ago. The elderly Sorin, long past any hope of romance, lives in a languid state of regret over roads not taken. Adapted from Anton Chekhov’s classic play "The Seagull" explores, with comedy and melancholy, the obsessive nature of love, the tangled relationships between parents and children, and the transcendent value and psychic toll of art.
The story of “The Seagull” follows the tangled relationships of a group of people who assemble at a provincial lakeside estate and farm owned by Sorin, a retired civil servant and his sister, Irina, a celebrated Moscow stage actress. Irina and her younger lover, Boris, a successful writer, have come to watch a play written and directed by Irina’s son Konstantin and performed by his girlfriend Nina, who lives nearby. Desperate to get out of his mother’s shadow and win her love, Kontantin acts out by attacking her and Trigorin’s work as lifeless and old-fashioned. His abstract and symbolistic play, which he sees as a higher form of theatrical expression, is rejected as pretentious by his mother, and as impenetrable by Trigorin. Even his beloved star, Nina, is unimpressed by the work, and soon her affections drift from Konstantin to Trigorin. Despite everything, Irina is fully human because you can see all of the pain and the fear and the vulnerability there. She’s also incredibly funny. Almost against your will, you enjoy and appreciate the wit of her cruelty. Irina is a passionate woman who's trying to get every last drop out of life that she possibly can. She’s always trying to move toward joy and love and connection, but she doesn’t always get there. She didn’t achieve the stature that she wants.
That’s part of what all of us who are trying to do something creative live with; how long will I get away with this, and is there something that’s gonna come up and take everything away? She feels good about herself until her son attacks her and then suddenly that part of her that's wondering where it’s all gonna go suddenly roars to the front of her consciousness and she’s confronted with her own vulnerability. She feels threatened and so she lashes out. Konstantin has been starved of his mother’s attention his whole life, as her first love has always been the theatre. He has genuine talent, however his ego has been damaged beyond repair. Irina will never take him seriously as an artist or a peer. Konstantin starts to do what a lot of young artists who aren’t recognized do, he denigrates the world that has rejected him. He wants to create new forms and make a new theater that has nothing to do with his mother. He's deeply in love with her and also hates her with great vehemence. As for Irina, that like all actresses, she wants to hang on to her youth for as long as possible, and as long as she has a 20-something son hanging around her, then she’s older in the eyes of that community. And now that Irina’s second love, after the stage, is unquestionably Boris, Konstantin channels his frustration with his mother into hatred of her lover.
Boris Trigorin isn’t quite 40 and is already famous and wealthy and successful as an artist, so to Konstantin, he poses even more of a threat. He has an almost compulsive need to observe and filter that observation to language. He’s got this detachment, this desire to break outside of that detachment and just be a part of the world. A lot of tension in him is his inner fight between wanting to really participate in his life and in the world, and wanting to retreat from it. Nina is the daughter of a wealthy neighbor who has remarried and disowned her financially and emotionally. She enjoys coming to Sorin’s house, appearing in Konstantin’s play, performing in front of his glamorous mother and the famous writer Boris Trigorin. This starts her fantasizing about the possibility of becoming an actress like Irina. Nina is a bit of a dreamer. She’s someone who's stuck in one place and yearns for something different. To her, like a lot of people, acting and the theater offer something exciting and new. She seems full of life, but Nina is a sad girl, actually. Boris’s desire for a renewed engagement with life is stirred when he encounters the brimming youthfulness of Nina. He feels attractive in a way that Irina never could make him feel. He has something to say, and he’s not familiar to her, so that mystery that he has excites her. And of course he can make that dream of acting come true for her.
Infatuated with Nina, Boris approaches Irina and asks her to set him free. He’s convinced it’s going to be easier than it turns out to be. He's shocked at the level that she humiliates herself and begs him. He makes his argument with such reason and kindness. There’s no cruelty in it. Of course, it’s deeply cruel in the way that we've to be with each other sometimes. Boris’s request reveals Irina’s true fragility in a more stark way than any other time in the film. Her power is perforated by the potential loss of Boris. But then you watch her will her power back and manipulate him to stay. It's a defining moment of who this woman is. Boris gives in easily, but his assent may be less than meets the eye. He's supremely conflict averse. He gives in, but then twenty minutes later he’s making arrangements to meet Nina. He desires a life where he can be completely honest, but that’s just not available to him.
Masha is the black-clad, snuff-taking, heavy drinking daughter of Sorin’s estate manager Shamrayev and his wife Polina. Masha is the most modern of the characters. She’s a real badass. She can be angry and stubborn one minute, and then the next dissolve into tears, and then make a joke. There’s something wonderfully Bette Davis about her. But at the same time she’s the most self-aware character in the play. She has accepted that she’s not going to be happy; that’s just the way things are gonna go. The main reason for Masha’s sadness is that she's helplessly in love with Konstantin, who won’t give her the time of day. She's miserable because she does believe in love, and does believe in true love, and knows it’s not gonna happen for her. At the same time, Masha brushes off the schoolteacher Medvedenko, in a way not altogether different from the way Konstantin treats her. She sees this man who she doesn’t believe is as smart as her, and she cannot respect him because of that. Medvedenko has done something completely unforgiveable, which is that he isn’t Konstantin and he never will be. Sorin has spent his life working in a government office and now, with his health fading, pines over the paths he didn’t take in his life. Sorin is kind and wise, a good friend to Konstantin.
"The Seagull" is something that gradually deepens into an increasingly complex metaphor as the story unfolds. We first encounter it when Konstantin literally shoots a seagull. Konstantin is mortified that his play didn’t go over well; and so devastated by Nina’s preference for Boris over him, that he shoots a seagull and lays it at Nina’s feet as a demonstration of how depraved she has made him. Later, after Boris and Nina have spent an afternoon on the lake, Boris comes up with an idea for a story; a young girl who has spent her whole life on the shore of a lake, a lake that she loves, where she feels happy and free like a seagull. And by chance, a man comes along, and with nothing better to destroys her. While Nina doesn’t hear the last words of Boris’s story idea, when she returns to the house years later, she refers to herself as a seagull. By that point, she has completely fallen apart. She’s gone mad.
In her mania, she connects her situation to the seagull that Konstantin shot. It's such a careless act in the hands of a man and she feels that a similar thing has happened to her. That’s the only sort of scenario she can use to make sense out of what happened to her. But Nina doesn’t just call herself a seagull; instead she alternates back and forth between calling herself a seagull and an actress. She’s been told so many different things about herself, that she doesn’t quite know what to believe, but she’s very good at holding onto hope, and that’s what keeps her going. Everything she has to hold onto now is this dream that she has and the purity of that. She’s trying to remind herself that she’s got a purpose other than to be that girl that Boris destroyed or that seagull that Konstantin shot. She’s still got a spark, she’s still alive, and she still has a purpose; the hard work and craft of acting.
In October of 1895, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, a doctor and popular Russian writer of short stories and novellas, began work on a play. His previous theatrical work, 'The Wood Demon', had been so roughly panned by critics that he had previously declared he would never write anything for the stage again. When “The Seagull” opened in 1896, the naturalistic style of his writing was so contrary to the melodramas of the time that the first night was a legendary debacle. The play was trying to do something surprising and new; to show people behaving in naturalistic ways, to eschew histrionics and telegraphed emotions for something more nuanced; to allow the actors to truly live inside the characters they were playing, and to introduce the concept of subtext to world drama. It's life itself onstage, with all it's tragic alliances, eloquent thoughtlessness and silent sufferings. Chekhov didn’t live to see cinema emerge as an important global art form. He would never know how significant his contribution to writing and acting would be. The sort of everyday life that is accessible to everyone and understood in it's cruel internal irony by almost no one.
It’s a comedy with three female roles, six male roles, four acts, a landscape, much conversation about literature, little action, and five tons of love. The audience talked loudly and jeered the play, rattling the actress who played Nina so much that she lost her voice. In the first act something special started, and a mood of excitement in the audience seemed to grow and grow By the third act the booing was so intense that Chekhov fled the theatre and retreated backstage. The critics savaged the play. Today he's universally recognized as one of the greatest and most influential playwrights in history. 'The Seagull' is a game-changer. You would be hard-pressed to find a drama scholar today who doesn’t think that it marked the beginning of what we call modern drama. No one had even attempted this kind of psychological naturalism. It's a new way of showing behavior that seems very contemporary to an audience now. The camera can capture subtle gradations of emotion and experience in ways that are impossible to do in theater. Cinema can control time differently, and the viewer can experience the actions and reactions of characters in a very particular order.
The yearning for love, yearning for connection, yearning for immortality, trying to figure out what it means to live a full life; these are central questions for human beings. "The Seagull" doesn’t necessarily give answers but it asks the question; how do we live our lives? The film remains relevant to audiences for over a century because some things, like the contradictory way human beings feel and behave, never really change. Most of us don’t live on estates with servants. The actual moment to moment reality of the story is not what our every day contemporary life looks like. But our own relationships have in are experienced in very much the same way, and that’s what makes the play, and the film resonant. All of the feelings that the characters have insecurity, fear, hope, longing, and unrequited love; these are human, timeless.
These characters express a huge range of emotions. The severe narcissism of Irina; the tragic consequences of irresponsible adult behavior and it's impact on youth are particularly relevant right now. The fact that Nina comes to understand that it’s not about fame, but it’s about endurance, is a huge lesson in life. The film reminds us of the value of art and dreams and how they can elevate one’s experience of the world. It's about love and that’s the subject in which we’re all the most interested in the end. If you’ve ever fallen in love, or had your heart broken, or fallen into a misguided passionate romance, it’s very easy to get swept up in the story of "The Seagull". We’re so capable of such generous behavior towards each other, and such terrible, awful behavior towards each other, and we so easily fall in love with the wrong people. The film shows the glory and the messiness of what it means to be a human being.