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.
Set on a 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 with little to do except torment one another. The real violence is psychological. With its daisy chain of unrequited love — Medvedenko loves Masha loves Konstantin loves Nina loves Boris, and so on — “The Seagull” is a kind of melodrama for brainiacs, offering wry wisdom about human vanity and our capacity for often self-inflicted misery.
The quartet of protagonists who make up the heart of Chekhov’s drama are some of the greatest roles in theater: 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.
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 on their private conversations, arguments and declarations of artistic manifestos. He and Karam deeply understand Chekhov, 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 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.
Easier to admire than to love, this “Seagull” cracks Chekhov’s sometimes hermetic dialogue wide open by bringing us up close and personal with the great moping, morose characters he created. But does that make for a transcendent moviegoing experience? As Irina says of her gloomy son’s attempt at playwriting, “Since when has the exhibition of a morbid disposition been a new form of art?”
Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements, a scene of violence, drug use and partial nudity.