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On the rocky path to sobriety after a life-changing accident, John Callahan discovers the healing power of art, willing his injured hands into drawing hilarious, often controversial cartoons, which bring him a new lease on life.
It's the Wild West, circa 1870. Samuel Alabaster, an affluent pioneer, ventures across the American frontier to marry the love of his life, Penelope. As his group traverses the west, the once-simple journey grows treacherous, blurring the lines between hero, villain and damsel.
An aging actress named Irina Arkadina pays summer visits to her brother Pjotr Nikolayevich Sorin and her son Konstantin on a country estate. On one occasion, she brings Trigorin, a successful novelist, with her. Nina, a free and innocent girl on a neighboring estate, falls in love with Boris Trigorin. As Trigorin lightly consumes and rejects Nina, as the actress all her life has consumed and rejected her son, who loves Nina. The victims are destroyed while the sophisticates continue on their way.
I thought of that line from Sunset Boulevard several times this afternoon as I sat, the only person in the theater for a 2:50 matinee, watching this *Seagull*. Not that the script, based on Chekhov's play of the same name, was negligible. To the contrary. It was well delivered by a cast who, for the most part, knew how to do so with telling effect.
But what struck me, over and over, were all the close-ups of the faces. Wonderful faces, characterful faces, belonging to actors young and older who never knew the silent screen era and yet know how to act just with their faces. Faces often perfectly lit, so that we saw the fresh beauty of the young - Saoirse Ronan, as Nina, out on the lake with Boris Trigorin and elsewhere in the early parts of the movie - and the cruel wrinkles and crowsfeet of those to whom time has not always been kind (Annette Bening, as the aging actress Irina, who delivered her dialogue wonderfully, but did so much more with her face alone when she considered, at the odd moment, that she might in fact no longer look appealing to her younger lover, Trigorin). If you like to watch actors act with their faces, as Norma Desmond and her generation knew how to do, you will find this movie a feast for the eyes.
But it is also beautifully filmed. The exteriors were evidently shot up in northern New York State, and they are like landscape paintings. The interiors, with period costumes, are wonderfully shot as well.
But it is the performances that you will remember. In addition to those already mentioned, Brian Dennehy, now 80 years old, is winning as the aging Sorin. Billy Howle does a fine job with the young playwright Konstantin, so convinced that he sees a new way to do theater and yet so very wrong. I was less captivated by the Doctor and Boris Trigorin. Elisabeth Moss had a difficult assignment, because Masha is such an unsympathetic character, particularly self-centered in a story about self-centered people.
Another thing that struck me repeatedly as I watched this movie was how cruel most of the characters are to each other, in their own very decorous ways, mostly because they are so wrapped up in themselves that they do not consider those around them. Well before Antonin Artaud and Jean Genet, *The Seagull* is definitely an example of the theater of cruelty.
Because this was released in the summer, it will, I suppose, be forgotten by Oscar time. More's the pity. There is a lot of very good work here, in the acting, the lighting, the cinematography and the direction. This is definitely a movie that could be savored more than once.
I subsequently reread the play, in Laurence Senelick's 2006 translation. I was surprised to see how much of the script is taken verbatim from that. The person who did the fine screen adaptation removed references to things that contemporary audiences would not know, shifted locales for certain episodes to produce the sort of visual variety you can't have in a play but need in a modern movie, and trimmed back certain passages so that subsequent events, such as Nina's appearance at the estate near the end of the movie, come as more of a surprise. Other than that, this movie is a remarkably faithful transfer to the screen of Chehkov's play.
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