Friday, January 13, 2017


This seemingly faithful adaptation of an Anton Chekhov play is set at a country house by a lake, where the famous actress Arkadina (Simone Signoret) has gathered family and friends for a visit. Her son Konstantin (David Warner) is trying his hand at writing plays but his work is ignored by his mother and by her lover, the successful but midbrow writer Trigorin (James Mason). When Konstantin stages a scene from the play, a monologue performed by aspiring actress Nina (Vanessa Redgrave), his mother is clearly bored by it and he throws a fit. Konstantin is in love with Nina but she gravitates toward Trigorin. There are other entanglements as well: a schoolteacher is in love with Masha, the daughter of the estate bailiff, but she (Kathleen Widdoes) holds an unrequited torch for Konstantin. Arkadina's brother (Harry Andrews) is retired but chronically ill and feels that he has never really lived. The bailiff's wife is also frustrated with her lot in life and holds a torch for Dorn, the local doctor (Denholm Elliott), who actually seems to the most well-adjusted person in attendance. A few days later, Konstantin kills a seagull and thrusts the bloody bird at Nina, surely intending some symbolic commentary on life, art, love and death.

Two years later, the same people meet at the house again. Konstantin is now a successful writer, though his mother admits to not having read any of his stories. Nina had a fling with Trigorin which produced a child that didn't live long. She's eking out a living as an actress and, though not a part of the group, is in a nearby town with an acting troupe, and has been fitfully corresponding with Konstantin, signing her notes "The Seagull." Masha is unhappily married to the teacher but still pines for Konstantin. The gathering of everyone is placid enough on the surface but when Nina sneaks onto the property, a tragic ending is in store for at least one character.

Full disclosure: despite my academic background and personal interest in drama, I've never read a Chekhov play. I've also never seen one performed, though I have seen two different TV productions of The Cherry Orchard. But having seen Woody Allen's wonderful parody of Russina literature, LOVE AND DEATH, this work feels quite familiar to me. This film looks beautiful, with the first half shot almost entirely outdoors, lakeside (in Sweden) with greens and yellows predominating, and the second half taking place inside a lovely wood-paneled home, all browns and golds. The acting is mostly first-rate; Redgrave and Warner take center stage in the showiest roles, but most everyone else is fine, with Elliott and Widdoes shining in relatively small parts. Some critics don't care for Signoret, mostly because of her accent—with most of the Russians played by Britsh actors, why carp over a French accent—but I thought she was very good. For me, James Mason is the one weak link; I have no clue from his low-energy performance why the role of Trigorin is considered to be such a plum for an actor. He's not bad but bland, and he doesn;t ruin the strength of the ensemble. It's slow moving at times, but the acting is always interesting and gets you over the rough spots. Pictured above left are Signoret, Mason, Redgrave and Warner [TCM]

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