Reel Dad: Bening in The Seagull shines but the movie stalls

Some plays should stay in the theater.

While Annette Bening delivers yet another award-worthy performance, and Saoirse Ronan continues her delightful career, this film adaptation of Anton Chekov’s classic play lacks the needed visual variety to successfully transition from stage to screen. While the words and characters work in a theatrical setting, the reality of the camera requires a different approach. Unfortunately, the artificiality of the movie’s staginess undermines its effort to bring Chekov’s magic to a new audience.

As a play, The Seagull delights with its exaggerated characters and delectable complications. Like most Chekhov plays, the setting serves as home base for a collection of eccentrics to pass through, including a larger-than-life actress, a rich young girl, a famous writer and an opinionated playwright. This rural estate houses a number of unfinished agendas, from the love that people pursue to the dreams deferred and the realities denied. With life and work in the theater as a backdrop, The Seagull reminds us how easily people can be fooled by fiction, especially the stories they create for themselves.

All of this has beautifully worked on stages since the play premiered in 1896, including a recent Broadway interpretation with Kristin Scott Thomas. But The Seagull is not a natural candidate for a movie, because there’s little action, because it’s all words. The play primarily moves from conversation to conversation about the truths that people hide, embrace or reinvent. This type of talky vehicle can’t work on screen unless the writer and director take the time to externalize the internal. Instead screenwriter Stephen Karam — who won a Tony for The Humans — severely trims Chekov’s four acts into a brisk 98 minutes. While the cuts make the piece more efficient, they do not help an audience unfamiliar with the story follow the characters and their illusions.

Michael Mayer’s static direction, as well, fails to capture Chekov’s ability to place complex people into simple settings to illustrate the follies they create for themselves. While Bening and Ronan confidently make the material their own, Mayer’s camera does not enable them to fully own the screen. For Bening, who shines any time she plays an actress, the role of Irina offers the chance to chew scenery, generate laughs, and touch the heart. And, for Ronan, the challenge to play a lady who can’t act lets this marvelous actress remind us how well she can. These two women, a reason to see any movie, make their moments in The Seagull work better than the movie that surrounds them.

Ultimately, stage plays work best on screen when they capture the essence of the theatrical experience — as in Sidney Lumet’s filming of Long Day’s Journey Into Night — or reinvent the material into a movie experience — as in Milos Forman’s interpretation of Amadeus. But simply trimming dialogue and turning on the camera are not enough to make a movie out of a play. But that’s what it feels Mayer did with The Seagull. He didn’t trust his audience to savor the subtleties of the original. Instead he made it all too obvious, too stilted, and too still.

Film Nutritional Value: The Seagull

  • Content: Medium. Anton Chekov’s classic provides sumptuous dialogue and characters even in an adaptation as truncated as this.
  • Entertainment: Medium. Despite an award-winning performance from Annette Bening, again, the film suffers in the hands of writer Stephen Karam and director Michael Mayer.
  • Message: Medium. No matter how old we may be, we all have the capacity to change. Even when everything around us suggests otherwise.
  • Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to revisit the world of Chekov is worth a visit to theater, even with the disappointments.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. Your children may not care about these eccentric people. But you might.

The Seagull runs 1 hour, 38 minutes. It is rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements, a scene of violence, drug use, and partial nudity. 3 Popcorn Buckets. The film is available in theaters. To read about another film adapted from a stage play, check out The Reel Dad online at arts.hersamacorn.com.

August Osage County suffers stage to screen transition

As The Seagull demonstrates, adapting a play from stage to screen may be more difficult than it looks. The process takes more than turning on a camera.

Playwright and director Tracy Letts learned the same thing a few years ago when his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, August Osage County, suffered in its transition from stage to screen. But, then, this play is all about suffering.

Let’s face it. Families can become too real for comfort. While we may share the courtesies of predictable conversation, and sustain the superficial connections defined with time, we may also feel that more happens between people than the pleasantries permit. Perhaps that’s what makes family celebrations so fascinating for people who make movies.

When we arrive in Osage County, Oklahoma, we begin to meet a family with more dust in their connections than on the front porch of their home in the middle of nowhere. Here is a family well trained in denial. The father, who is now missing, actually cares for his family, the mother sincerely wants the best for her children, and the siblings sincerely support each other. Or not. No matter what people in this family may say to each other, they always mean something else. After all, clear communication is too much for families to expect. Hidden agendas make for much more interesting dinner conversations.

On stage, August Osage County thrived in the detailed world created by Letts’ beautifully crafted sequences. The playwright had the luxury of time in the theater where he took three hours to carefully develop the conversations that would reveal the tensions so well hidden by these family members. But few movies can sustain such a long running time and, in the transfer from stage to screen, Letts was forced to delete nearly a third of his material. The cuts are felt. Rather than give us a richly detailed look at the dynamics of intra-family relationships, Letts offers a less developed examination that, at moments, can feel like a drive-by visit with a dysfunctional crowd. Rather than savor moments, he scoots by them, as he seems to insist keeping all the characters from the play no matter how truncated their roles may become. What thrived on stage as a fascinating look at the dynamics of a complex family emerges, instead, as a suggestion of what might have been. If only the studio had given Letts more screen time, or if only Letts had given up some characters in the interest of fully developing others. This could have been, with more substance, a major work on screen just as it was in the theater.

Of course, Meryl Streep makes the most of every moment, and turns the matriarch Viola into a completely developed portrait of a woman who refuses to admit any realities in her life. As always, Streep carefully reveals the essence of the character, building from a shocking opening sequence that immediately captures our attention into a performance of nuance and care. While other dimensions of the film may disappoint, Streep simply amazes. She again delivers an award-worthy performance.

Julia Roberts, however, is a bit one-note in a role, as Streep’s daughter, that was a highlight in the stage version. Perhaps because the dialogue has been trimmed, or Roberts is playing serious, she just never seems to find the essence of the character. The captivating Margo Martindale, on the other hand, is so good as the engaging aunt of the family that you wish Letts had given her more time. She suffers from the limited air time the film is forced to follow.

Watching this film makes us wish that Letts could have made the movie he may have wanted to make, or would have realized the limits he was given. Unfortunately, this visit to Osage County leaves us wanting a whole lot more than we get. Much like our visit to The Seagull.

August Osage County, from 2013, is Rated R for language, including sexual references. The film runs 2 hours and 1 minute. It is available to stream on Prime Video.