24 Oct 2018

Review: Saoirse Ronan soars in The Seagull

From At The Movies, 7:32 pm on 24 October 2018

If you want to see versatility and talent – and one of the finest actors around – check out the new film adaptation of The Seagull by director Michael Mayer, says Simon Morris.

Saoirse Ronan in The Seagull (2018)

Saoirse Ronan in The Seagull (2018) Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Anton Chekhov is on most people's Top Ten List of the Greatest Playwrights Ever, but that much-admired Russian has always left me a little cold.

Too many miserable families locked in run-down mansions, too much maudlin regret behind the witty dialogue, too many unpronounceable names.

Not my thing, in other words... until now, maybe.

At just 24, former child star Saoirse Ronan has already been nominated over the years for three Academy Awards - and she's managed it despite a name that most of the Academy can't pronounce.

The original play The Seagull is Chekhov Lite, I believe - and my source should know what he's talking about. It was Chekhov himself, who was rather dismissive of this very Russian tragi-comedy of unrequited love.

The Seagull is a play - in this iteration at any rate - about celebrities and celebrity culture, about a self-important new generation attempting to topple the previous one, and about regrets at the end of one's life. Regret that you never achieved anything.

These are meaty subjects for what, on the surface, is a mere frothy tale of romantic errors, but the cast, at least, is up to it.

Grand dame actress Irina is played by an old hand at this sort of character, the great Annette Bening who raises self-delusion to an art form.

Playing her brother is an actor who's been off the big screen for so long I thought he was no longer with us - Brian Dennehy.

He's very much alive, I'm pleased to say, playing the disgruntled owner of... yes, a rundown mansion.

Irina has arrived with her new lover - the younger, but celebrated, super-star author Boris, played with sinister shallowness by Corey Stoll.

Celebrities, then as now, have a strong, and often dangerous effect on the young and impressionable. The young in this case being Irina's intense would-be writer son Konstantin, and Konstantin's girlfriend, the aspiring star actress Nina.

Nina and Konstantin are about to perform a new play by the young playwright, that will sweep away all the clichés currently clogging up the theatre - like plot, character and clear messages.

But the performers feel threatened by the presence of two undoubted stars in the audience.

Irish superstar Saoirse Ronan and talented up-and-comer Billy Howle have already broken our hearts this year in the film On Chesil Beach.

But if you think their return - as Nina and Konstantin - might have a happier end, you haven't been paying attention.

Anton Chekhov doesn't do feel-good, I'm afraid.

Instead, Nina finds herself lured in by the glamour of the celebrated, unreliable Boris.

Meanwhile, Konstantin keeps being distracted by the attention of love-struck Masha, played with some real guile by Elisabeth Moss - another actress who can't put a foot wrong at the moment.

If you think celebrity culture began with Lady Gaga, or Madonna, or Marilyn Monroe, or any of the rest of the shooting stars who illuminate our lives while leaving no trace, The Seagull may be an interesting corrective.

It's very well acted - particularly the three female leads - and it's cunningly directed, with a trendy flash-back/flash-forward brought in to give it a bit of 21st-century suspense.

I'm not saying I've changed my opinion of Anton Chekhov yet, but at least this time I can see why he's famous.

I really should give him another go.

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