‘The Seagull‘ is an adaptation of the famous Chekhov play and features a stellar cast. Annette Bening stars as Irina, an established actress on the Moscow stage and Saoirse Ronan plays Nina; a country girl who aspires to make her way onto the stage also, Corey Stoll plays Boris; a famous author and Irina’s lover, Billy Howle plays Konstantin; Irina’s son and an aspiring writer, Mare Winningham plays Polina; a housekeeper at Irina’s country estate, and Elisabeth Moss plays her daughter, Masha; a depressed alcoholic who is in love with Konstantin.
Envy is the central theme of the film; Konstantin burns with feelings of hot jealousy of Boris’ success, complicated by the fact that he’s also sleeping with his mother. At the start, Nina and Konstantin are lovers, so Masha is resentful towards her. Nina’s feelings of admiration towards Boris eventually become something more, leading to further tragedy for Konstantin. And Irina is jealous of Nina’s youth and dismissive of Konstantin’s attempts at writing. The unusual decision has been made for the cast to use American accents, which makes as much sense in a period Russian piece as the usual British RP. This gives actors like Brian Dennehy (whom I adore) more freedom and expression. I loved the score of this film and the theatricality – there is a lovely scene in the grounds of the country estate, where Konstantin puts on a play using shadow puppets. Bening is incredible, as always and I enjoyed this film overall.
On Chesil Beach
‘On Chesil Beach’ has received extremely mixed reactions from critics and this made me even more intrigued to see it than I already was. This is the second Ian McEwen adaptation that Saoirse Ronan has starred in, after ‘Atonement‘. It follows newly-weds Florence (Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) on their wedding night in a hotel in Dorset (next to the eponymous beach). An awkward and excruciating evening unfolds, interspersed with flashbacks explaining how they have ended up this way. I loved this framing device and the unusual structure of this film – the story revealed its layers slowly and is all the more rewarding for it.
I have gone from being totally unaware of Billy Howle to seeing two of his films in one day. I am really impressed by him and he holds his own up against the multiple Oscar-nominee here. The casting of the two sets of parents is perfect – Florence’s parents are played by Emily Watson and Samuel West (two of my favourite English actors) – they are snobby Oxbridge types whose gradual darkness is revealed. Edward’s parents are played by Adrian Scarborough and the always-wonderful Anne-Marie Duff. Edward’s mother is brain damaged and this leads to some heart-breaking, but exquisitely played scenes.
Music plays a central role in the narrative and I loved its use, from Florence’s string quartet music to Edward’s burgeoning relationship with rock and roll. The production design is impeccable; particularly the hideous maroon silk bed in the honeymoon suite and the cluttered artistic chaos of Edward’s family home. The costume design is also notable – Florence’s electric blue dress in the wedding night scenes is in bold contrast to her state-of-mind. The dress particularly works well in one of my favourite scenes that takes place on the beach itself towards the end. The framing, blocking and focus-pulling in this scene are carefully controlled, almost as if Florence and Edward are chess pieces.
As with ‘Atonement’, point-of-view is a central theme and the structure allows you to gain the perspective of both the central characters. You can see the paths that have led these two people to this point in time and get a full understanding of why the night pans out as it does. I was slightly less keen on the two scenes that take place after the wedding night (with significant time-jumps).
‘On Chesil Beach‘ is a complex, mature film that is an impressive debut by director Dominic Cooke. I’m really looking forward to what Billy Howle does next, as he has made a significant impression. I don’t really understand the criticisms that have been levelled at this film, as I really loved it. It engaged and intrigued me throughout and the story goes in many interesting and unexpected directions. Ronan is as tremendous as always and it captures the period extremely well. I really recommend this film.