The new big-screen version of The Seagull translates more than just the dialogue, but the characters’ perpetual sense of romantic misery and emotional despair, too.
That’s a fundamental issue with this handsomely mounted and well-acted adaptation of the play by framed Russian writer Anton Chekhov — it’s so difficult to sympathize with this self-absorbed collection of stuffy artistic types regardless of the language or the setting.
Basically, that characteristic extends to almost any version of almost any Chekhov story presented in almost any format. Yet the writing is still brilliant, and finding the right balance among tones and subtexts can be tricky. In this case, despite some flourishes, the film lacks a deeper resonance.
It keeps the story outside Moscow but shifts the chronology slightly to the early 20th century, when a dysfunctional family gathers for a weekend at a family estate where the visitors include Irina (Annette Bening), an aging stage diva looking for a getaway with her latest boyfriend, famed novelist Boris (Corey Stoll).
Irina’s son Konstantin (Billy Howle) shows up ready to debut a new play for his mother. But because it stars Konstantin’s squeeze, the ambitious young ingénue Nina (Saoirse Ronan), she becomes jealous and mocks it.
As Konstantin wallows in his depression, and Irina tries to mask her own insecurities, Boris begins to gravitate toward Nina. Meanwhile, Masha (Elisabeth Moss) secretly desires Konstantin as she instead settles for a less satisfying courtship with a schoolteacher (Michael Zegen).
The film is directed by Michael Mayer (A Home at the End of the World), best known for a Broadway resume that includes an acclaimed version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Its screenwriter, Stephen Karam (Speech and Debate), likewise is a Tony winner.
Mayer deserves credit for freeing the material somewhat from its stagebound roots by shifting some sequences outdoors and keeping the camera swirling — even if the faster-paced result loses some of the claustrophobic intimacy of the source material.
Among the actors, Bening shines in the story’s most pivotal role, blending Irina’s external cynicism and pomposity with her internal vulnerability and regret.
The Seagull has proven difficult to grasp in previous big-screen attempts, and ultimately this experimental version only sporadically captures the intended mix of humor and heartbreak. At least the high-profile ensemble cast might attract a new generation to Chekhov, if they’re in the right mood.