A Master of Over-Statement

FILM: THE SEAGULL (12A) 2018 USA 98mins, from the play by Anton Chekhov, screenplay by Stephen Karam, directed by Michael Mayer, with Elisabeth Moss, Saoirse Ronan, Annette Bening, Corey Stoll, Billy Howle, Brian Dennehy.

It’s kind of a relief to write about a film like The Seagull because you don’t have to worry about spoilers. Everyone knows the story, or mostly everyone, and even if you don’t the fun is in the details rather than worrying about what happens next.

That said, the problem which then appears is that much of the joy and humour in Chekhov is the way his characters sit around all day talking but never really get down to doing much and film is, unfortunately and as we all know, not really a talking medium. It’s a truism that it does visuals best, so what you get, drama-wise, is both concentrated and diluted at the same time. Lots of the dialogue is excised but there’s some very pretty scenery.

And just as it’s true of Ibsen (see A Master Builder), Chekhov is from a tradition of melodrama, of exaggeration, of hyperbole. He’s a master of the over-statement. In fact, all the talking is what connects the characters, what they have in common. And it’s what connects us to them. We love their exaggerated self-pity, their concerted attempts at unhappiness. That’s what creates community, a shared experience. There’s nothing like a bit of grumbling to pass the time.

But once you focus all this down to a kind of dialogue which gets on with things, which is about momentum, progress, transaction, then you end up with something completely different. Characters no longer talk just for the sake of talking. They talk with an end, a result in mind. They want something specific. You end up with a film about the inner life; the inner life of a particular character, not the outer life of a group of characters, all trying to get along, to connect.

This is now a reflexive choice. It seems impossible for film to do anything else. All we, as an audience, look for is inner life. What is that person thinking? What are they feeling? What do they want? This is very limiting, and not at all in the spirit of the original play.

And this isn’t to say the film isn’t well acted. It is, in the sense that we are privy to the characters’ inner lives. But what’s missing is the sense that all the characters have their own lives in their community. What’s lost is what connects them, externally, rather than simply as an expression of one particular character’s inner life. This is Chekhov so of course there are flashes, moments where the original tapestry can be glimpsed, but once again a kind of reflexive idea of what constitutes a film takes over, submerges, what is a great play.

Paul Corcoran