At first glance, it’s easy to see why the costume drama The Seagull is being undervalued in its early critical reception. A literary adaptation of an Anton Chekov play led mostly by women in period-specific costuming, this is the exact kind of stuffy-seeming costume drama that typifies most people’s perception of independent cinema, the kind of film festival fodder that lures elderly audiences into daytime-napping in public. However, The Seagull is only half the stately indie drama indicated by its Chekov stage play source material. Its other half is a surprisingly morbid, exquisitely bitchy comedy that laughs in the face of self-important, artsy fartsy types who would typically watch that more pretentious end of cinema in the first place. Saoirse Ronan anchors the genuinely dramatic end of that divide as an aspiring, vulnerable actress caught between the love & lustful whims of two playwrights. Annette Bening & Elisabeth Moss run wild & gnaw scenery on the morbidly humorous end, affecting the performative, comedically exaggerated femininity of a barroom drag act. Together, the trio transform The Seagull from minor prestige indie to slyly subversive comedy & meta-melodrama, an oddly delightful mix of femme-specific tones that deserves more critical respect than it’s ever going to get.
Annette Bening lords over the proceedings as a boastful matriarch (inviting a 19th Century Women pun I’m too clumsy to pull off) and a successful stage actress who demands 24/7 admiration from her family & fans. Her son is a depressive playwright who believes her craft is empty, pandering frivolity, as opposed to True Art. A lesser movie this stately in appearance might side with him, using his complaints that “The modern theatre is trite and riddled with clichés!” to comment on its own elevated place as true art in a cinematic landscape ruled by Transformers sequels & the MCU. Instead, his artistic idealism is satirized as being born of juvenile insecurities, especially in comparison to the much more successful playwright who is mother’s de facto concubine. This jealousy only deepens as the two playwrights struggle for the affections of the same hopelessly naïve muse (Ronan), while Bening & Moss (who is in love with the son) look on in horror. This he-loves-her-but-she-loves-another web of unrequited affections plays out in both perfect comedy & tragedy, equally balanced. Moss hovers between both ends with the most versatility, dressing as a widow because, as she explains it, “I’m in mourning . . . for my life.” Bening & Ronan are more constant in their demeanor (self-aggrandizing & hopelessly wide-eyed, respectively), as they allow a petty tug-of-war between two foolish, destructive men play out to an inevitably tragic end.
At its start, The Seagull feels artistically nondescript, as if anyone could have made it at any time. Early music cues even feel as if they were lifted from episodes of Downton Abbey. Its costumed soap opera stage setting eventually melts away, however, as the caustic relationships between its characters devolve into absurdist, playfully cruel humor (not to mention genuine, old-fashioned cruelty). Bening, Ronan, and Moss pull a minor miracle in transforming The Seagull into a must-watch subversive comedy that is not at all telegraphed by the film’s humble, lovelorn melodrama beginnings. Director Michael Mayer does his best to keep up with the trio, becoming increasingly daring in his framing & music choices as the stakes of the story increase and become more deranged. The cathartic emotional climax of the picture only works because of its performers, however, who sell the severity of this story’s cruelty, whether played for humor or genuine dramatic effect, with full, lasting impact. The Seagull is worth watching for those three performers alone, whether or not Chekov adaptations & stately costume dramas are your usual cup of tea. Here, the tea is boiling hot and surprisingly bitter, leaving the whole room laughing & fighting back tears in equal measure. It’s a shame it isn’t getting enough respect or attention for that accomplishment.