The Seagull + On Chesil Beach: Literary Infidelity

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.

The Seagull: **
On Chesil Beach: ** ½

In a coincidence that borders on the creepy, this past May saw the release of two literary adaptations in which Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle play estranged young lovers. Michael Mayer’s The Seagull, on the one hand, is based on Anton Chekhov’s groundbreaking play about a group of mediocre, warring artists. Conversely, Dominic Cooke’s On Chesil Beach takes its cues from Ian McEwan’s 2007 novella, which follows two newlyweds who’re unable to consummate their marriage.

On the whole, Ronan and Howle are easily the best two things about both these films. To be sure, this isn’t because either of the two actors breaks significant new ground. In the wake of Brooklyn and Lady Bird, Ronan merely confirms her propensity for playing idealists with somewhat naïve conceptions of reality, and to a certain extent, Howle’s characters are both tormented romantics. Yet in spite of – or perhaps because of – this homogeneity, both actors are able to approach their various roles with a remarkable maturity. Beneath the youthful ebullience the two exhibit, they always demonstrate a subtle, sophisticated understanding of who their characters are, what their characters want, and (most importantly) how their characters’ dignity can be damaged.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

For all their talent, however, Ronan and Howle can’t make up for the fact that both The Seagull and On Chesil Beach violate the “spirit” of their respective sources. With regard to The Seagull, you could write whole books on Chekhov’s style – but for our purposes, there are two things about his approach that are especially worth dwelling on. First, his plays are the very antithesis of melodrama, eschewing elaborate stage directions, artificial narrative structures, and caricatural character sketches in favor of plain, “morally neutral”[1] depictions of the day-to-day. Second, his writings also come loaded with subtext: offstage events are often just as important as onstage ones, and spoken dialogue usually matters less than the things characters pointedly choose not to say.

Sadly, neither of these two qualities ends up carrying over to Mayer’s adaptation. In the first place, many elements of the film’s stylistic approach run counter to Chekhov’s minimalist aesthetic. The strikingly (and showily) fluid Steadicam shots that Mayer likes to use, for instance, eventually prove to be a distraction from the on-screen action. And in a similar vein, the ubiquitous background music quickly outlives its usefulness, turning into a layer of ornamentation that proves both unnecessary and intrusive.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Beyond its style, however, the most glaring issue with Mayer’s adaptation stems from the way it treats Konstantin (Howle), the young, angst-ridden writer who ends up committing suicide. In the play, Konstantin’s story is just one of several plot threads: Chekhov, in a manifestation of the aforementioned “moral neutrality,” never suggests that Konstantin’s emotional troubles are uniquely significant vis-à-vis those of other characters. Additionally, in keeping with Chekhov’s love of subtext, the play usually illustrates the intensity of Konstantin’s despair via indirect means. Konstantin is often offstage, for instance, when other characters make speculative comments on his emotional state, and it’s precisely his absence in these moments that allows us to realize just how isolated and unhappy he feels.

In the movie, unfortunately, Mayer does the exact opposite of everything just mentioned. For one, he transforms the play’s first three acts into a flashback that Konstantin has in Act IV, thereby ensuring that the story structurally revolves around Konstantin’s worldview. Furthermore, whenever any of the characters talk about Konstantin, the film constantly cuts between their conversations and shots of him brooding in solitude, a technique that directly accentuates and magnifies the severity of his emotional dilemmas. Ultimately, by foregrounding Konstantin’s anguish on such a regular basis, the overall movie makes itself into a Werther-esque tale of shattered idealism – and needless to say, this histrionic approach completely flouts the allusive, anti-dramatic one of the original work.

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.

Meanwhile, as mentioned previously, On Chesil Beach portrays the failed marriage of Edward (Howle) and Florence (Ronan). And of the many explanations the original novella gives for this failure, two stand out in particular. First, Edward and Florence really don’t know each other all that well, a fact that McEwan highlights by juxtaposing rich descriptions of their inner thoughts with the painful superficiality of their conversation. Second, the couple are also hampered by their era’s gender mores; as McEwan shows us, Edward is “burdened” by his sexual inexperience, while Florence feels pressured by what she sees as her obligation to satisfy Edward’s libido. For all these reasons, the couple’s relationship feels like a mere product of established social “protocols,”[2] and you never get the sense that the two of them actually love one another.

By contrast, the cinematic version of Chesil is defined by its jarringly old-fashioned affirmation of companionship. To start, Cooke turns each character’s aforementioned inner thoughts into the subject of dialogue, thereby replacing the novella’s atmosphere of unacknowledged distance with one of understanding intimacy. Moreover, instead of focusing on restrictive gender mores, Cooke often prefers to indulge in romantic sentimentalism. Much of the film, for instance, consists of flashbacks of the couple’s courtship that are set to uplifting background music, and the mawkishness of the altered ending recalls the equally syrupy “lost love” conclusion of La La Land. Thanks to these various directorial decisions, in short, Edward and Florence don’t come off as protocol-bound conformists; rather, they’re portrayed as close, genuinely happy lovers who’re torn apart by a tragic misunderstanding.

Ironically, what’s particularly frustrating about Cooke’s adaptation is that he occasionally does show some awareness of the novella’s decidedly anti-romantic dynamics. During the film’s sex scenes, for instance, the techniques he uses (symmetrical set designs, long takes, a music-free soundscape) all suggest that he wants to depict emotional repression in the manner of directors like Michael Haneke. Yet Cooke ultimately places these would-be chilling scenes alongside the lovey-dovey flashbacks and conversations I discussed above. And as a result of this adjacency, you’ll probably find Chesil’s sex scenes to be oddly comical; despite their intentions, they feel less like portraits of repression than awkward, “Wow, is it possible to be this ignorant about sex?” excerpts from a cringe comedy. For all its flaws, then, Chesil has at least this redeeming facet: it’s a reminder, if nothing else, that style is all but meaningless in the absence of context.

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.

***

The Seagull (2018) On Chesil Beach (2017)
Starring: Saoirse Ronan
Billy Howle
Annette Bening
Corey Stoll
Elisabeth Moss
Saoirse Ronan
Billy Howle
Emily Watson
Anne-Marie Duff
Running Time: 98 minutes 110 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 R
Produced by: Leslie Urdang
Tom Hulce
Robert Salerno
Elizabeth Karlsen
Stephen Woolley
Written by: Stephen Karam Ian McEwan
Adapted from: The Seagull by Anton Chekhov On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Directed by: Michael Mayer Dominic Cooke

[1] Phrase taken from Michael Frayn’s introduction to his English translation of The Seagull.

[2] Note that “protocols” and “burdened” are words that McEwan himself uses in the original text.