The Seagull

June 22, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Annette Bening
Directed by: Michael Mayer (“Flicka”)
Written by: Stephen Karam (“Speech & Debate”)

During her decade-long career, three-time Academy Award nominated actress Saoirse Ronan has been a champion of independent cinema. While some of those films have reached incredible heights like “Brooklyn,” “Lady Bird” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Ronan has hit a small rough patch with her last two less-than-stellar outings – “On Chesil Beach” and her most recent, “The Seagull.”

Adapted from a late 19th-century play of the same name by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, “The Seagull” is a narrative that is probably fine as a stage production, but when put on film feels inelegant and amateurish. Many of the film’s problems lie at the feet of director Michael Mayer (“Flicka”), whose career successes have come mostly from his work on Broadway, where he won a Tony Award for the musical adaptation of 2006’s “Spring Awakening.” Sadly, Mayer is unable to create much of a pace or focus during what is, thankfully, a fleeting 98-minute stopover with a cast of particularly grating characters.

Set in a country estate not far from Moscow, the film stars Ronan as Nina, a love-struck young woman who lives nearby and comes for frequent visits to see Konstantin (Billy Howle), an aspiring playwright who views the modern theater as “trite and riddled with clichés.” He lives there with his uncle Sorin (Brian Dennehy) and the estate’s manager Ilya (Glenn Fleshler), his unhappy wife Polina (Mare Winningham) and their even unhappier, vodka-drinking daughter Masha (Elisabeth Moss), who is also in love with Konstantin.

Family dynamics are thrown into disarray when Sorin’s sister and Konstantin’s mother Irina (Annette Bening), an aging stage actress, comes for a visit after learning that Sorin has fallen ill. In tow with Irina is her lover Boris (Corey Stoll), a celebrated writer Konstantin grows jealous of, and who begins to get closer to the impressionable Nina as she hurls compliments his way.

If all those elements sound like a classic setup for a melodramatic tragicomedy — where all the characters mope around wishing that somebody who didn’t love them loved them and complaining about the misfortune of making art — then “The Seagull” has found its audience. For others, “The Seagull” is a pity party that can’t be salvaged by the couple of scenes where Bening’s Irina, who is disappointed in her son for wasting his time making pretentious plays, is able to really show off her character’s cruel and critical nature.

Aside from Bening — and a few of Masha’s one-liners (“I’m in mourning, for my life,” she says when asked why she always wears black) — there’s not much that makes “The Seagull” notable. It’s a film about tiresome characters telling tiresome stories. Everything else is lost between all the pouting.

On Chesil Beach

June 22, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Emily Watson
Directed by: Dominic Cooke (debut)
Written by: Ian McEwan (“The Innocent”)

A fledgling marriage comes to a major crossroad before it begins in “On Chesil Beach,” a period drama adapted by English author/screenwriter Ian McEwan (“The Innocent”) from his bestselling 2007 novel of the same name.

Set in 1962 England, “On Chesil Beach” introduces Florence (three-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle), newlyweds who decide to spend their wedding night in a hotel on the seashore. Florence and Edward come from different backgrounds and don’t share the same interests. Edward likes American rock ’n’ roll while Florence prefers classical music. He enjoys history and birdwatching while her only extracurricular activity is playing the violin in a string ensemble.

“I think you must be the squarest person in all of Western civilization,” Edward tells his wife after she describes Chuck Berry as “bouncy.” But her taste in music isn’t going to be their undoing. It’s impossible to talk about “On Chesil Beach” without revealing exactly why Florence and Edward are such a bad fit. So, we’ll just say it: Florence is revolted by sex and has no desire to ever consummate their marriage, a small detail Edward probably would’ve liked to have known before they tied the knot.

It becomes apparent in the first half of the film that McEwan’s critically acclaimed novel has translation issues on the silver screen. The most evident is the time spent on the awkward scenes inside the hotel room where Florence and Edward fumble with zippers and avoid intimacy by nervously bantering back and forth. It’s easy to see how these details could be read as emotionally tragic, but seeing it play out cinematically feels disconnected.

Also weak are the numerous flashbacks in the screenplay that McEwan and first-time director Dominic Cooke attempt to use to mold the two leads into realistic characters who would resonate with audiences. Besides an ambiguous scene where it’s hinted that Florence might have been sexually abused as a child, not much from these nonlinear sections of the film give any insight into who these individuals are. Even a secondary storyline about Edward’s mentally ill mother forces the narrative into melodramatic pitfalls.

Ronan’s and Howle’s onscreen chemistry, too, is nonexistent. Even when they’re not acting like the most pitiful virgins in movie history since Jason Biggs humped pastry in “American Pie,” the characters are stunted. Without the same authority that filmmaker Todd Haynes used to confront issues of sexuality in the 1950s and 1960s in his films “Far from Heaven” and “Carol,” Cooke’s “On Chesil Beach” is a missed opportunity to add to that conversation.