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Two Adaptations of the Seagull


Anton Chekhov's The Seagull has remained a mainstay of the classic canon of dramas since 1896, following an eventful and disastrous opening. Its ensemble cast, and complicated, realistically subtle if tortured characters have ensured that it remain an attractive option to playhouses everywhere. As for film adaptations, however, they tend to have more in common with the play's opening night than its rich legacy. Strange, since cinema is such a subjective art form, it would seem a perfect medium to convey the intricacies of each player's inner life, yet there has never been a truly (forgive the pun) soaring adaptation. Good ones, but never amazing.

The Seagull was a departure from traditional dramatic action, far more involved, placing an emphasis on the thing we do most often in life that reveals us; talk. It took some time before it was recognised as the fantastically subversive and subtextual work we understand it to be today, informing, like the rest of Chekhov's work, dramatization and writing to this day. As we all know; complicated plays that aren't appreciated without due time and context make for oh so easy adaptation on screen.

As with any story about inconsolable, broken and miserable people, there are only two ways about it, without falling into ridiculousness. Tragedy or farce. Hamlet or In Bruges. Of course there are shades of one within the other, and that's the nature of the beast when it comes to The Seagull, but a filmmaker must pick a side. A tonal middle ground regarding something of this sort, where emotions run this high, would be absurd.

Two Adaptations of The Seagull

As fate would have it, 2018 saw the release of two of the best adaptations of The Seagull yet, both by filmmakers who come from theatre, one a faithful period set light farce backed by reputable Hollywood talent and the other a small Afrikaans variation set in the modern day, host to our own stars (what Annette Bening and Elizabeth Moss are to Hollywood, Sandra Prinsloo and Rolanda Marais are to... do we have a name for ours yet?). These diverging approaches to the material make for an interesting look into how The Seagull can be adapted well by capturing the humour Chekhov insisted was always there, and yet breeze by like a tepid fart, or adapted well with ferocity, but become somewhat arduous.

The prim and proper period adaptation, The Seagull, is an all-round solid effort. Nothing crazy, but a showcase for the massively talented cast. Elizabeth Moss and Annette Benning, being each on the opposite end of the misery to vanity spectrum, are absolutely perfect. Moss is on the verge of tears for almost the entire film, it would seem, and that sort of 22-year-old woe-is-me act is both funny when it needs to be (she wears black in mourning; “for (her) life”, and upsetting when we confront the pain of unrequited, and inexplicable love. Benning, with an utter disregard for the trouble around her, is the most blatantly comedic aspect. Saoirse Ronan as Nina is great when playing up the naïve actress to be, but embodies the trouble the film has with the tortured side of things in that, yes, she is believably hurt by the end of the film, but I don't see jaded. The same can be said for much of the film, not as jaded as is called for. Konstantin, here played by the handsome Billy Howle, comes across in no way as the emotionally-stunted, frightened, and overly eager mother's boy from the play. Rather he comes across as a sensitive, but tortured soul, sometimes something like a Mr. Darcy. On the whole, it's a film more at ease than I think can be justified by the conclusions the story draws. Maybe the filmmakers sensed this; they made the choice to play a scene from the dramatic fourth act as the opening, to colour what was to follow.

Our own South African take, modernized and retooled for a '90s era Afrikaans setting by perhaps one of only a handful of auteurs from SA; Christian Olwagen, only makes time for the darkest of humour. Olwagen's is a ruthless take on the material, having his actors push to the absolute to convey what is obvious from everything the characters say and do; they are damaged goods. With his characteristic long takes, following characters as they march across spaces, framing them to fill the wide screen marked, avoiding editing at all costs, he just about films his stage adaptation, rendering the camera as basically an impartial witness. With these prolonged takes, and a lack of music, tension is brought to the foreground. Realism, sexuality, trauma, uncomfortable neurosis, all dialled up. Konstant is more embarrassing, Nina more desperate, Irene the absolute epitome of the egomaniac starlet (in Sandra Prinsloo's best performance), and so on. All this means that this is a refreshing and exciting take on the material, but it does suffer a weighty flaw: it becomes laborious to finish. This is a demanding and distressing watch, riding hostility and discomfort for hours on end. For a play once touted for doing away with melodrama in favour of naturalism, the material can absolutely lean towards dramatic, and it can do so for a little too long, a little too strongly. Die Seemeeu is still the adaptation to beat though, it would survive on the strength of its cast alone, so familiar with their roles that they've reached a new state of spontaneity in their performances.

So there we have it, not a bad year for Chekhov movies, though there's a chance that The Seagull is destined to remain best seen in person, on stage. Either that or the perfect adaptation lies somewhere in between these two; dark, but funny, dramatic, but reigned-in, in a word: nuanced.