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Review: 'The Seagull'

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A tale of unrequited love and unfulfilled aspirations, Anton Chekhov's bitterly tragic comedy "The Seagull" gets an enjoyable -- if mostly unremarkable -- adaptation, boosted by a bevy of strong performances from its spectacular cast.

Set in late 19th century Russia, most of the story's action is confined to the lavish, lakeside country estate of Sorin (Brian Dennehy), where a number of family guests have arrived for the summer. There's timid schoolteacher Mikhail (Michael Zegen), who's in love with acerbic, depressed Masha (Elisabeth Moss), who drinks heavily while pining for handsome aspiring playwright Konstantin (Billy Howle), who's enamored by naïve would-be actress Nina (Saoirse Ronan), who's infatuated with the famous writer Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), who's the lover of Konstantin's mother Irina (Annette Bening), an aging, narcissistic actress who seems to only be in love with herself.

Screenwriter Stephen Karam and director Michael Mayer aren't terribly interested in subverting or looking for a new angle on Chekhov's play, which results in the sort of straightforward adaptation that might feel right at home on "Masterpiece Theatre." And it's all fine.

A Tony Award-winning theater director (for the musical "Spring Awakening" in 2007), Mayer successfully avoids making the unrepentantly theatrical material feel too stagy or stuffy, and he keeps things moving at a brisk pace. Karam also condenses the plot significantly, leaving little breathing room for the story's drawing-room conversations, as the characters struggle to express their yearnings for love and art, while delivering unintended (and occasionally intended) cruelties to one another.

The film's chief selling point is an ensemble's worth of masterful performances -- particularly from Bening and Stoll -- that keep things lively and engaging. But in the end, there's not much that distinguishes this from a particularly well-mounted staged reading.

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