The more movies one sees, the more reasons one finds for staying put all the way through the end credits. If it’s a product from the Marvel Universe, you know that there’s going to be at least one coda scene, maybe more, dropping teasers about the next installment in the ongoing story. There might be a new rendition of the potential winner of next year’s Best Original Song Oscar, or a heartbreaking “in memoriam” dedication of the film to someone whose last work it was. There might be some hilarious blooper outtakes (if you’ve never seen the bit that was left on the cutting-room floor because Peter Sellers simply couldn’t get through it without cracking up, you owe it to yourself to buy, rent or borrow a copy of Being There posthaste).
These days, with our region becoming a hotbed of filming locations, we sometimes have a new kind of closing-credits tidbit to enjoy: an acknowledgment of the helpfulness of the Hudson Valley Film Commission. Laurent Rejto gets a personal shout-out at the end of Michael Mayer’s new screen version of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, and it helped this reviewer to walk out of the cinema with a big smile on her face, even while shaking her head, thinking, “Oh, those gloomy Slavs.”
Most of The Seagull was shot at Arrow Park in Monroe, in Orange County. The lodge perched above the lake there, an Italianate villa with Arts and Crafts Movement touches, was built in 1909 by architect Bowen Bancroft Smith for Julia Cooper and Schuyler Schieffelin. In 1948, members of a Slavic Club based in New York City and Newark raised $200,000 in hundred-dollar shares to buy the estate collectively, under the name AROW Farms, Inc., which stood for American Russian Organized Workers. It was meant to be a country retreat for immigrant families of a socialistic bent, providing respite from the heat of both urban summers and the rising Red Scare. Folks still reminisce about the FBI being encamped at the gates while they attended family reunions inside.
Nowadays, more than half of the surrounding 600 undeveloped acres have become part of the permanently protected Sterling Forest preserve, and the Arrow Park Lodge is mainly a wedding and event venue. Many of today’s shareholders are the children and grandchildren of the original investors. And many of the events held there, such as performances by Russian folkdance troupes, still bespeak their cultural roots. What better setting for a family drama meant to be happening at a dacha on a bewitchingly beautiful lake in the countryside outside of Moscow?
Putting a beloved stage classic onscreen always entails the risk of losing that elusive quality of engaging the imagination that we think of as “stage magic.” Not everyone who is enamored of Chekhov’s works as theater or as literature is going to love this new Seagull. But for my money, it weathers the transition well, with some at least of the credit going to the magical setting. If you’re cool with a pithy, pivotal conversation going on in a rowboat instead of a drawing room, it may well work for you too. In fact, Stephen Karam’s screenplay is able to condense a fair bit of exposition by showing rather than telling, as is supposed to be the strong suit of cinema as an artform. Instead of having the frustrated young Symbolist playwright Konstantin (Billy Howle) tote a stuffed seagull around for a couple of acts, we actually get to see him shoot it out of the sky. But we can still share the bafflement of his errant ladylove Nina (Saoirse Ronin) about what in the hell he means by it.
The cast here is very strong, although not uniformly wondrous. Ronin looks as luminous as she can possibly be (which is to say, considerably) in the light reflected off the lake, but struggles a little with the starstruck ingenue role; we’ve seen her do much better work elsewhere. I was also less than 100 percent impressed with Corey Stoll’s muted rendition of Boris Trigorin, the successful author who is Konstantin’s rival for the love of both women in his life. Stoll fails to convey either the self-deprecating charm that’s supposed to make Trigorin irresistible to women or the cynical, calculating user underlying his public persona, and his very American accent seems intrusive.
Annette Bening gets a well-earned star turn in the role of one of the most horrible moms in literature, the celebrated-but-aging classical actress Irina Arkadina. She resplendently delivers Arkadina’s vanity, her self-indulgence, her callous inattentiveness to her son, her envy of the competing talents of others, her miserliness of the heart as well as the purse. But she also lets us see the fragile self-esteem underlying it all, along with a somewhat modernized suggestion that the character’s boredom with life is a product of ADHD. The scene where she is changing Konstantin’s bandage following his bollixed suicide attempt (yes, this is the play wherein Chekhov’s famous gun resides) is a poignant highlight, as the young man clings to his fragmentary memories of his mother’s occasional capacity to be nurturing, while Arkadina can clearly recall only the famous artists she has known and how she outshone them all.
Though he’s a little too pretty for the castoff boyfriend role, Howle does a fine job – especially when he’s called upon to channel Konstantin’s inner torment comedically by having him throw himself into some Rachmaninoff on the piano. In fact, Chekhov’s dark humor, poking fun at the tendency of people living near the Arctic Circle to take their existential angst a bit too seriously, flows more freely in this film than it often does onstage. Best by far is Elisabeth Moss as Masha, the daughter of the estate’s caretakers who nurses a long, hopeless crush on Konstantin and drowns her misery in vodka, snuff and irony. Masha mocks her own maudlin tendencies even as she airs them: a delicate balance that Moss brings off with exquisite timing and nuance. Why did nobody think before of portraying the perpetually black-clad Masha as the 19th-century embodiment of a contemporary Goth sensibility? It works beautifully here, and Moss absolutely steals every scene in which she appears.
It falls to Masha to remark that unrequited love exists only in fiction, even as she coolly and knowingly takes the measure of the thwarted longings of nearly all those around her. This idyllic lakeside haven, it seems, is where old dreams go to languish and wither, while new ones die a-borning. Maybe that’s the human condition – especially if you’re an artist. Or Russian. Or a Russian artist, especially. Chekhov somehow got that at some level, there’s humor to be found in that doom. In Mayer’s Seagull, with the assistance of some on-point acting and some evocative mid-Hudson countryside, we all can get the joke.