The Sea Gull
Screened in January 2012 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Sidney Lumet. Cast: Simone Signoret, David Warner, Vanessa Redgrave, James Mason, Harry Andrews, Denholm Elliott, Kathleen Widdoes, Eileen Herlie, Alfred Lynch, Ronald Radd, Frej Lindqvist, Karen Miller. Screenplay: Moura Budberg (based on the play by Anton Chekhov).
Twitter Capsule: Routinely dismissed, and inarguably uneven, but Warner and Redgrave are remarkable. Moving enough to warrant a look.

Photo © 1968 Warner Bros./Seven Arts
For a long time there was no way to see Sidney Lumet's 1968 adaptation of Chekhov's The Sea Gull, which has never bowed on DVD in the U.S. or even, as far as I know, on video. For what it was worth, there wasn't much incentive to track it down. Lumet scarcely addresses the film in his widely-noted memoir Making Movies, and even when he passed away, this was a film that even the most hero-worshiping of programmers saw fit to beat up on in the programs for their retrospectives. When I was preparing a book chapter I wrote on Vanessa Redgrave's filmography, I encountered only the direst sketches of this project—a promising one since, in addition to the Chekhov, Lumet, and Redgrave imprimaturs, The Sea Gull also boasts James Mason, Simone Signoret, David Warner, Kathleen Widdoes, Denholm Elliott, Harry Andrews, and Eileen Herlie in its cast, and Tony Walton designing the production and its costumes, all amid photogenic Swedish locations. In Redgrave's autobiography, the experience of making The Sea Gull stands out in multiple ways. She describes some guilt at holing up in work in a remote location during the summer of 1968, when the world and certainly the European continent were rocked by protests and crises of every kind. (Her accounts of those crises are idiosyncratic and, predictably, fascinating.) That said, she also describes the fellowship of these collaborators on a piece this sublime as among the happiest working experiences she was ever to have, particularly with so many of their partners and children collected in such a glorious space. As movie fans, we can't help but disregard how some of the films that reflect best on their makers are not automatically the experiences they regard with the greatest fondness. Of course, the reverse is also true, as seems to be the case here. Redgrave admits upon seeing the movie that "I found it exemplified for me the difference between film acting and theatre acting," and that "although I can't fault any of the component parts—the acting, atmosphere, lighting, camera work, and direction are excellent—it remains a filmed theatre piece.... The independent life of the story does not come through, and that is where The Sea Gull falls short as a film."¹

Certainly if any film actress has lived to provoke disagreement, it's Redgrave, and having suddenly discovered the film hiding in plain sight on iTunes, I find that I have precisely the opposite reaction. For my money, The Sea Gull is full of moments where one can fault any of the component parts—the acting, atmosphere, lighting, camera work, and direction are all erratic, and occasionally quite grievous. And yet the independent life of the story comes through, and that is where The Sea Gull scrapes by as a film. I would even go so far as to say that its best performances, by Warner, Redgrave, and Mason, in more or less that order, crystallize what is possible on film, when the camera adds layers or implications to performance choices that I suspect they would have thrived on stage, too, but in different ways. The other brickbat people like to take to this Sea Gull (which insists on cleaving its title into two words) is that Lumet and the screenwriter-translator, Moura Budberg, are entirely preoccupied with dolorous moods and ignore the charge we hear so often that Chekhov played correctly is to be played for comedy. Certainly this is true, and I would not recommend this Sea Gull as in any way definitive, but I cannot think of a good reason why I would insist on interested parties avoiding it at all costs, as Oliver Lyttelton did on IndieWire. I see his point, and it was a common response; I just don't agree, as much as I expected to. It's odd to read so many Chekhov stagings derided for failing to find the extremely well-hidden core of comedy, and then to find a piece like this derided for deliberately playing the emotions as a series of down beats, rather than failing to fulfill a different tonal or philosophical aim. Maybe that means this Sea Gull lets itself off several hooks, and I'm happy to co-sign that verdict. It also gets snagged on plenty of other hooks that could have been easily avoided. But whether because the material is so richly challenging or because—as I believe—Lumet and his repertory make their fair share of good decisions, proffering one or two really stunning scenes, I think the film deserves more of a shake.

The Sea Gull's opening shots, unfolding in the five or six minutes before the first line of the text's copious conversations is spoken, survey the lakeside Russian estate that the ailing Sorin (Andrews) shares with his nephew Konstantin (Warner), and which doubles as a country retreat for Sorin's sister and Konstantin's mother, the celebrated actress Arkadina (Signoret). The estate employs a staff, including a bailiff Shamraev (Ronald Radd) and several half-visible servants, and it also draws regular visits from local notables, such as Dr. Dorn (Elliott). So, your typically Chekhovian hub of activity within a socius defined by its lack of activity. The early pan over the house itself recalls Lumet's success six years previously in translating Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night so brilliantly to the screen, all in the interior and immediate environs of another stately home. Long Day's Journey, visually and psychologically, may as well have been filmed in an inkwell or a pile of soot—the right choice for that piece. The tensions among Katharine Hepburn's brittle New Englandisms, Ralph Richardson's imperious Britishness, Jason Robards's indecorous bellowing, and Dean Stockwell's ingénue qualities served the film well, since no one in the Tyrone family quite recognizes themselves in each other, even after decades of bitter intimacy.

If The Sea Gull puts an early foot wrong, not just by comparison to Lumet's past peaks but as a self-contained experience, it's in the totally different tack adopted by Lumet and cinematographer Gerry Fisher (a steady associate of Joseph Losey's) in filming the Scandinavian lowlands. The film opts for a blend of over-bright lighting and Vaseline diffusion that's simultaneously garish and vague. Not all of the images subscribe equally to this odd visual cast, though even when one is not being confronted with it directly, you fear it could return at any moment. The sound mix also falters, especially amid the film's frequent long shots, where it seems not to arise organically from the images at all. If there's anything to be said for these lapses and dubious judgment calls it's that The Sea Gull feels like a languid, out-of-body experience for its principals, articulating ideas and memories that hover over their bodies instead of pouring out of them, and occupying a world where simply seeing others clearly, or seeing oneself clearly, is a literal obstacle. I don't mean to recuperate Fisher's odd lensing as a conscious tactic; I'd have quickly urged a different approach, and I wonder why Lumet felt susceptible to this one. But there must be reasons why The Sea Gull's appearance didn't capsize the experience for me as it clearly did for so many viewers, and I think this is why. I never saw a romantic penumbra clinging to these characters or their surroundings. What beauty the film has, and I don't think it strains in that direction, is so cloying as to be dull, standing between us and our perceptions of life, and Chekhov's text amply accommodates these notions, however unwitting, of boredom and alienation from the world.

Early in the film, Lumet attempts some visual ideas separate from this luminous diffusion, but his heart seems only halfway in them. As Konstantin constructs a makeshift stage on the lawn, where he aims to present a boldly abstract play for his mother, her rather louche novelist-paramour Trigorin (Mason), and the other members of the household writ large, the camera has some fun drawing parallels between the scrims on the stage and the billowing white outfits that Konstantin favors. So does his star, Nina (Redgrave), the daughter of a local landowner whom nobody likes, who breathlessly races to the set even though she's in no danger of being late, and who comes across as stiff and uninspired in reciting Konstantin's strange text—even if her beauty while doing so is indisputable. If the symmetry of the clothes and the curtains imply that Konstantin and Nina are rather self-consciously "of" the theatre, Arkadina fortuitously plays her first big scene with the proscenium in the background, making a literal show of denouncing her son's abstruse work and, of course, humiliating him in the process. These are neither bold insights nor omens of larger ideas on the filmmakers' part, though curtains will haunt Konstantin's final action in a way that endows that, too, with an implicit theatricality—and it's certainly staged for an audience, even if they deliberately can't see it. Mostly, though, we end up in a gauzy naturalism, where the light sometimes preserves its overdone opalescence and sometimes settles into a less fussy softness. The sets and clothes sometimes bear an ostentatious handsomeness, but more often lend the film some texture or character detail without calling undue attention to themselves. Rarely is this The Sea Gull actively assisted by how it's been shot or mounted; it succeeds to the extent that it subdues its plastic and visual choices sufficiently so that the shakiest ones don't deplete the experience too much.

I can live with that. Given an encounter between such an able cast and such a skilled director of actors, all I want anyway is for the characterizations to catch fire and for their exchanges with each other to bring The Sea Gull to life. Among the four most crucial roles, Signoret poses the only real impediment. Sometimes an actor thrives for so long on a reputation as an unlikely sex-symbol that people forget about the "unlikely" part and miscast her in roles where her lack of more conventional allure is a real handicap. Signoret never seems all that comfortable acting in English, and certainly not where the nuances of language are as pivotal as they are in Chekhov. I would not cite fine shadings of psychological implication as her prime métier even in French, but her thick-tongued, wrong-voweled English and her occasionally evident insecurity in this role make the play's most charismatic figure into the film's most unwieldy presence. The actress never stops trying, though, and her work pays a few dividends. Some postures she finds to communicate Arkadina's emotional obtuseness, as when she blithely gobbles breakfast while discussing her son's troubles, are funnier than anything the rest of the cast is willing to try. Signoret also has a good pair of adjacent scenes with her son Konstantin and her lover Trigorin, where she seduces the former and smothers the latter, reflecting either an intense role-confusion or a very astute awareness that Konstantin finds her discomfitingly attractive, and Trigorin will do almost anything if it coddles him away from making his own difficult decisions. Signoret handles well some important close-ups in the final beats of the movie, but like so much else in the stylistic register of the film, she is heavily burdened not with succeeding but with overcoming some built-in liabilities, which extend, I think, to her very casting in this role. I never bought her as an actress playing an actress, and I never saw her as a sexual threat to her son, and only rarely as a tempting haven for Trigorin. Some of the problems are cosmetic. I have no idea why, after a two-year gap in the play's chronology, during which we know Arkadina would have worked harder than ever to hold onto what she desires in her private life, she emerges even more crudely made-up than before—a more off-putting seductress, rather than, based on the evidence of what she has retained, an inventive, unrefusable, and ultimately successful one.

A botched and even a blobby Arkadina is a lot for any Sea Gull to supersede, but luckily, Lumet has a flush hand with his Konstantin, his unlikely Trigorin, and his Nina. Warner was antic and arguably superficial when paired with Redgrave for Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, even though that strange part in a strange film certainly goaded him in those directions. He is a revelation, though, as Konstantin, moving and sympathetic without being at all easy to like. His close-ups are marvels of unclear intention, which sounds like a complaint but is actually high praise. As Nina struggles through Konstantin's turgid playwriting ("Every living thing burnt out, burnt out, burnt out!... It is cold, cold, cold! Empty, empty, empty!"), the cut to Warner's face finds a man indivisibly in thrall to a bad play because he is besotted with its star, or willing himself to love both a woman and a piece of work that he recognizes as ersatz, or unconscious of any important deficits in his writing until others point them out to him so cruelly. He may even be confused by Nina's shrill delivery, because he loves her, and in the rigid, decisive habits of thought that Konstantin keeps trying to cultivate—despite a life that swells with unwelcome ambivalence and emotional paradoxes—it makes sense to him that someone he would love would be a great actress, and that only a great actress could be someone he would love.

Warner is not afraid to let Konstantin look foolish and overconfident. In the famous moment where his character espies the dead seagull, taking it as a symbol of what his mother and her social caste inflict upon the beauty in the world, Warner thrusts forward the bloody bird with a petulant, childlike vehemence—at once giving Konstantin the courage of his convictions but also a disappointing, immature flatness in the way he thinks about people and their complicated motives. He does not seem to clock what a humiliating moment this is for Nina, whom he means to preserve as both his lover and ally, and as a longed-for substitute for a mother to whom he cannot help feeling inexorably drawn. Warner disappears for stretches of The Sea Gull, sulking somewhere while Arkadina's bond to Trigorin, Trigorin's to Nina, the longing of the bailiff's daughter Masha (Widdoes) for Konstantin, the longing of the schoolteacher Medvedenko (Lynch) for Masha, that of Masha's mother (Herlie) for the doctor (Elliott), and that of the doctor for Arkadina all come into fuller view. When Konstantin resurfaces, all the layering Warner has infused into the character exists as firm preparation for us to accept his tantrums, his insights, and his incredible blindnesses, even when we aren't sure which tendency he will exercise when, or which of them is winning within a moment that elicits all three.

By casting Mason as Trigorin, Lumet avoids the kind of generational parity that productions often establish between Arkadina's lover and her son, such that Konstantin is all the more horrified and confused by her choice. It is also very galling to see her dote on a novelist who does not even pretend to believe in what he so profitably writes, when Arkadina cannot even be bothered to cut the pages on Konstantin's short stories, despite boasting to his face of having bought them hot off the press. Mason, as ever, exercises a potency as Trigorin he'd be hard-pressed to muffle, and yet this most focused and mercurial of actors takes a cue from Fisher's lighting and manages to make Trigorin seem listless and diffuse. His contempt for his own writing makes him chuckle, while Konstantin's aspirations for his own make him writhe and weep. Nina, whom Redgrave plays with the well-mannered propriety of the diligent but talentless student, attests to having read all of Trigorin's work, and he seems to pity her for it. His ability to laugh off his own success may make him further attractive to the girl. His disenchantment with popularity for its own sake or with the unmanageably "pure" ideals that Konstantin still harbors for his own art seem to speak well of Trigorin but also to reflect a natural state for someone a couple decades older.

That said, there is a reason this man grimaces with self-contempt while he sleeps—our first impression of him, from which the film gradually teases out a logic. Trigorin's facility with shrugging off a compliment or an idea or a piece of his own work augurs his dangerous reflex of shrugging off plenty else. (This bodes especially badly for Nina, who idealizes him so highly, and it cannot help but prove maddening for Konstantin, who has ever-increasing reasons to relate to Trigorin as a foe.) As unstudied as Trigorin appears, at moments he is helpless to forestall self-knowledge, and Mason makes these moments poignant, even though they portend past, present, and future cruelties for other characters whose fates are bound to this careless impostor. In one of these intervals where Trigorin's mask briefly falls, Lumet contrives for a rare slash of light to fall right across Mason's face, only for a second, as he makes a naked confession of having "no will of my own." Even without this subtle graphic assist, the pain and the truth in the line come through in the actor's face and voice. Another of his finest moments is a quick dart of the eyes to Konstantin in their last conversation, suffused as it is with small-talk, so shortly after Konstantin has regaled the others in the room with the most sordid possible account, whether biased or not, of Trigorin's behavior. That quick, darting look all but confesses that he knows what the younger man knows (and has probably told), and that he both demands and begs to be left unchallenged in his hypocrisy and his terrified heartlessness.

Few filmmakers could force themselves to shine as little light on the shimmering Redgrave as Lumet affords to Mason's flat, beshrouded Trigorin. Still, maybe the biggest surprise of this Sea Gull is how unprecious it is about Nina or about the woman who interprets her. During this period, Redgrave was incessantly cast as a gorgeous, prismatic, but sometimes vapid presence, her diamond of a face forever turning in the light of Camelot or A Man for All Seasons, without a real role to serve. Here, though, she keeps Nina's radiance on quite a disciplined leash. Nina seems more eager to impress than to seduce, and she's intensely conscience of an audience that awes her more than it scares her—like a child auditioning for promotion to the adults' table. Redgrave's vocal tones are even and low, as though Nina is trying to appear sophisticated; perhaps, as we glean, she's simply had reason in her young life to be measured and self-effacing. That said, the overquick cadences of her speech wait for no one. She barely even punctuates her dialogue. "You mean that inspiration and the creative process itself doesn't ever give you a moment of satisfaction, fulfillment?" she asks, as one flat and unroken torrent, just as "I've made an irrevocable decision the dye is cast I am going on the stage I'm leaving my father leaving everything I'm starting a new life" is a declaration that pours out with eager velocity but zero color or modulation.

She means every word; Nina isn't a blatherer. The fact that Redgrave is a bit old for Nina—she was over 30 and a mother of two when she filmed this, as opposed to, say, Carey Mulligan, who turned 23 during the recent West End and Broadway revival—also lends an unusual poignancy to her sense of decorum but also to her eagerness to ask, to aspire, to escape. You could say that Redgrave speaks with an impassioned speed that her manner and tenor know to be inadvisable—and Nina's passions, of course, will cause her plenty of problems. By the time we re-meet her in the final act, they have led her on an entirely unenviable journey, but Redgrave is almost rhapsodic with her combination of humiliation and intensified devotion. Tears, few but very large, fall from her face as it rests on Warner's shoulder, as she threads pledges of devotion to Trigorin within the very same phrases as she expresses her awareness of how little regard he has for her: "I love him! I love him! I love him even more than before! A subject for a short story! I love him desperately!" She is in pain and in sublimity at the same time, but as much as she looks like Bernini's St. Teresa, Redgrave brings that heady combination down to earth in ways that are pitiable and harshly plausible. It helps, I'm sure, to have Warner reacting with such understated anguish in his own impeccable reaction shots. Again, his admixture of horror, sympathy, and desire for Nina is hard to tease apart, and for that no one could fault Konstantin. Still less could they fault the sensitive performer of this increasingly mixed-up soul.

I recently said of Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night, another flawed adaptation of an obviously great play, that the movie manages the trick of making every member of a large and rangy cast equally intriguing. Such is not the case in The Sea Gull, where the secondary characters needed clearer delineation, whether this is the fault of the camera, the director, or the cast. Elliott's doctor, looking oddly like Mark Twain, and Andrews's collapsing landowner fade off the screen as soon as one of the brighter, gutsier performers comes around, which is too bad, because Redgrave and Mason especially could hardly be accused of showboating. The same fate befalls Widdoes's saucy young Masha, so delighted with pinches of snuff, so bored by requited fondness, so tormented by unrequited love, but putting a bit too much into some of her big speeches and looking a little camp at the finale, in her rendering of inner devastation. I also said of Twelfth Night that even though all the acting is good and the film as a whole engenders lots of good will in the early going, it somehow peters out near its conclusion—depriving you, almost, of the sense that you've seen Twelfth Night, and certainly of a sense that you've fully felt the piece.

Here again, Lumet's Sea Gull proves an obverse. Perhaps I felt generous, able at long last to see this thing. Still, no matter how much goes wrong, and its technique is inarguably errant, I felt I was watching Chekhov's play, or a fair run at it, never more so than when Redgrave and Warner hold each other in their arms after nightfall, unable to see each other's faces as she confides more in him than anyone else in The Sea Gull has ever confided in anybody. What he does with that knowledge is not, infamously, what he does in Chekhov's script; it's another moment where purist objections are inevitable, and a lot of non-purist objections, too. One doesn't have to strain to see the better movie, based on a richer reading of the text, that could have emerged here. If Rickson's revival holds onto its Kristin Scott Thomas-headed cast and actually transfers to film as it's been trying to do, I'll be first in line. Perhaps I'll grow more ornery with the deficiencies of this one. But Nina's jumble of dreams and self-debasements, Konstantin's fistful of worthy ideals and snotty aggressions, and Trigorin's notebook of dark epiphanies and convenient lies make for quite a dramatic takeaway. Despite a film that otherwise feels too blurry—in every sense—I find it hard to feel entirely short-changed. Grade: C+

¹ Redgrave, Vanessa. Vanessa Redgrave: An Autobiography. New York: Random House, 1994.

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