A glittering cast adorned in period-perfect Romanov-wear, and parked in sparkling upstate New York locations can’t quite make yet another Chekhov adaptation, yet another version of “The Seagull,” take flight.
As a sort of city sophisticates lord it over their country cousins dramedy, the subtext feels fresh and timely even if the stolid theatricality, the usual Chekhov clutter of characters and the weary collection of plot complications do not.
Annette Bening swans through this world as if her character owns it, as indeed Irina does. She is a celebrated actress, a wealthy diva, and she rarely lets a relative or a servant forget it.
But she’s all concern and charm when she rushes “home” to visit her brother and his brood in the country. Sorin, played with warm fatalism by Brian Dennehy, is failing. And surrounded by family, one and all flash back to an earlier summer visit, back when her temperamental son Konstantin (Billy Howle) was struggling to find his artistic voice and escape her shadow, when she brought her famous writer-paramour Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll) to meet them all for the first time.
Comically querulous Masha (Elisabeth Moss) doesn’t bother to hide her drinking or her disdain for a would-be suitor (Michael Zegen).
“Why do you always wear black?”
“I’m in mourning…for my life!”
There’s Polina (Mare Winningham), Doctor Dorn (Jon Tenney) and Irina’s long-suffering manager (Glenn Fleschler from HBO’s “Barry”). And the center of this flashback is fair Nina, the neighbor girl whom Konstantin has made his muse. They will stage a play in the woods, for the family — well, for his mother.
But the inventive shadow puppets behind the curtain cannot save it as Nina (Saoirse Ronan) launches into the opening soliloquy — “Cold, cold! Empty, EMPTY! Horrible, MOST HORRIBLE!”
Mom cannot contain her mockery, and the central conflicts are laid bare — Konstantin’s mania for success in the arts dissolving into manic Mom-induced mood swings, heightened by her bringing along an accomplished writer to further lord it over him, Nina’s innocence tempted by the flattery of the famous actress and her flirtatious lover, and all the others, grousing in well-heeled, well-fed, well-dressed discontent.
“I ache all over, but the doctor won’t treat me.”
“You’re an old man!”
“Old men want to live!”
The dialogue, adapted here by Stephen Karam, still delights. Scenes between the adoring Nina and aloof, alluring Boris crackle.
“Let’s talk about my beautifully brilliant life. I must write. I must write. I must write.”
But this Michael Mayer (“Flicka,” “A Home at the End of the World”) film never escapes the Cinematic Chekhov Trap. It’s a breezy, lightly charming chore to sit through, and sit through it we must because it’s Chekhov and it’s good for us.
Actors love his plays for the characters, the dialogue and the chance to work with a LOT of their friends. College theater programs, which can afford to do shows with huge (unpaid) casts, are devoted to Chekhov and keep him as a cornerstone of an actor’s education for the same reason.
On the screen, a lot of that sense of “life” is lost. The films — endless remakes of “The Seagull,” “Three Sisters,” “The Cherry Orchard” and “Uncle Vanya” — take on that “important work” seriousness that hijacks one’s attention. We watch and we mull over what is said, the meaning and metaphors, the human profundities. But all too often, the movie never breaks free of “the play.”
“Seagull,” as radiantly self-absorbed as Bening can be, as self-serious as Howle and Stoll come off, as winsome as Ronan remains and as funny and cranky as Moss’s mastery of Masha might be, never quite adds up to an adaptation that’s anything more than “Well, we saw them do Chekhov.”
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for some mature thematic elements, a scene of violence, drug use, and partial
Cast: Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Corey Stoll, Brian Dennehy, Elisabeth Moss
Credits:Directed by Michael Mayer, script by Stephen Karam, based on the Anton Chekhov play. A Sony Pictures Classics release.