Movie Review: Die Seemeeu

Die Seemeeu or The Seagull is based on a classic Russian play by Anton Chekhov, which was originally modernised for stage by writer-director Christiaan Olwagen. Taking an Afrikaans perspective in the 1990s, the critically acclaimed stage production featured a stellar South African cast, many of whom have reprised their roles for the film adaptation.

Die Seemeeu features screen legends and next-generation stars including: Sandra Prinsloo, Marius Weyers, Rolanda Marais, Deon Lotz and Albert Pretorius. While the film is peppered with actors, it’s dominated by the actresses who are able to spread their wings and in some cases… squawk. Prinsloo is a force as the self-absorbed Irene, reminiscent of Shirley MacLaine in her flamboyant, attention-grabbing and scene-stealing turn. Rolanda Marais is just as effective as the naive, reckless and starstruck, Nina. The strength of the cast’s collective performance makes the community character study worth the ride alone.

Olwagen updates the play to make it relevant and sound familiar, leveraging the acting talent and even their film histories to enhance the characters. Having performed the stage play, the ensemble already have a great understanding and connection with their characters, allowing them to focus more on the spontaneity of the moment. The inspirational Olwagen, known for Kanarie and Johnny is Nie Dood Nie, continues to refine his trademark style, which typically involves long continuous single shots and strong performances from a broad ensemble.

“Float like a seagull, sting like a diva.”

This choice of cinematography suits the live-action nature of the stage play and assists it in making the transition to screen. Instead of using an actual demarcated stage like in Dogville or simply transferring the scene to a fixed setting, he allows his actors the space to roam against a living dollhouse. The camera follows the drama quite organically, cleverly settling in to capture dialogue before moving onto the next setup.

Centring on a lakeside farm estate, Die Seemeeu deals with family feuds, specifically between a mother and her son, and the collateral damage caused by romantic and artistic derision. Dealing with the nature of fame, unrequited dreams and deep-seated envy, this ensemble drama is full of tension, neuroses and burning passion.

Dysfunction is rife in this household, carried forth by strong language and callous rejection, making it not only a challenge to capture the performances in a single take but also engaging on a spectrum of emotion. Masterfully rehearsed in terms of performance and composition, the power of Chekhov’s play is brought to life with a twinkle in the eye as conflict arrives like a dull surprise.

Curious contrasts between characters who have it all and those that want the same recognition, laurels and seat of power, make this drama often vicious as the characters let it all hang out. Divided into four incremental time periods, one gets a broader overview of the story’s repercussions, which is set in motion by makeshift stage curtains that come to frame the household and audience of players.

As a film, Die Seemeeu could have checked out after part three. Dedicated to the source material and its full circle, it does seem a bit drawn out at over two hours. The film outperforms its low budget feel, which cleverly grounds the situation in a suspended social realism. The execution makes you wonder if Olwagen had envisaged it as a film before he adapted it for stage. Either way, it’s a full tilt cinematic experience, harnessing strong performances and leveraging towering themes around ego, fidelity and artistic merit. Die Seemeeu is a bold and sweeping translation of the stage play and makes a worthy and powerful transition to screen.

The bottom line: Engaging