Is it a contradiction to call "The Seagull," the authoritative new film adaptation of Anton Chekhov's 1895 stage play, a peerlessly wrought interpretation of a theater classic, while also less than a great movie?
It's certainly a very good one: Perfectly cast, impeccably acted and with a screenplay by playwright Stephen Karam (writer of the Tony Award-winning "The Humans") and direction by Michael Mayer ("A Home at the End of the World") that, like a magnifying glass, seeks and finds new insight into Chekhov's famously oblique and subtext-laden dialogue. But there is also something over-intellectualized and bloodless about this version. This despite the play's well-known blood, which unlike its offstage appearance in the source material, splatters on camera, halfway through the film, in startling fashion.
Startling, yes, but to what end? Set on a sprawling, lakeside estate outside Moscow, and covering a span of two years at the dawn of the 20th century, "The Seagull" introduces us to a motley group of people — young, old, rich, poor, failures and successes — with little to do except torment one another. The real violence is psychological.
Chekhov called his plays, including this one, his first great success, comedies. But they aren't really, at least not in the sense that most people understand that word. At best, "The Seagull," with its daisy chain of unrequited love: Medvedenko loves Masha loves Konstantin loves Nina loves Boris, and so on. It is a kind of melodrama for brainiacs, offering wry wisdom about human vanity and our capacity for often self-inflicted misery.
Here, it's a tragicomedy that feels neither especially tragic nor particularly comic. The impoverished, clownishly love-struck young schoolteacher Medvedenko (Michael Zegen) is the character who comes closest to funny, and yet I defy you to laugh at him.
The quartet of protagonists who make up the four-chambered heart of Chekhov's ensemble drama are some of the greatest roles in theater: The vain, aging actress Irina (Annette Bening); her son Konstantin (Billy Howle), an idealistic young writer; his naive girlfriend, Nina (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring actress; and the famous author Boris (Corey Stoll), Irina's much younger lover, who quickly catches Nina's eye. Both Boris, who ghoulishly takes notes on everyone as fodder for his writing, and Konstantin, who dreams of creating a radical new form of theater, are stand-ins for different aspects of Chekhov himself. The aloof Dr. Dorn (Jon Tenney), who observes all goings-on with the clinical detachment of a coroner, is yet another. (Chekhov was trained as a physician.)
Into this milieu of petty jealousies and histrionic passion we have been dropped, like ghostly guests at a summer gathering. Mayer does an admirable job of opening the play up, following his characters as they meander from house to lake to woods to barn, eavesdropping, voyeur-like, on their private conversations, arguments and declarations of artistic manifestos. He and Karam deeply understand Chekhov, that much is indisputable. But it sometimes feels as though they're telegraphing what, on stage, ironically, reveals itself more subtly.
As Irina, Bening shines, in a role, by turns needy, nurturing and nasty, that she seems to have been destined to play. And Ronan makes for an incandescent Nina, especially in her loopy final-act speech about how she is the "seagull," which earlier in the play Konstantin has killed, pointlessly, and which serves as a metaphor for innocence crushed. If nothing else, the movie is a double tour de force of acting.
And yet it leaves one dry-eyed, even at the film's tragic conclusion (only foreshadowed by the spatter of blood earlier in the film).
Easier to admire than to love, this "Seagull" cracks Chekhov's sometimes hermetic dialogue wide open, in a way that only film can, by bringing us up close and personal to the great moping, morose characters he has created. But does that make for a transcendent moviegoing experience? As Irina says, of her gloomy son's attempt, in the film's first act, at playwriting, "Since when has the exhibition of a morbid disposition been a new form of art?"