★ ★ ★ ★
These days period piece don’t often burn up the box office but a new adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s petticoated romance “The Seagull” has a shot. With “Downton Abbey” a long distant memory and the heat surrounding a post-“Lady Bird” Saoirse Ronan, the 1886 could find an audience in the era of Kardashianana.
Ronan and Annette Bening headline a talented to cast to breathe life into the 132 year-old twisty-turny tale of desire to vivid life.
Love is in the air. Bening is past-her-prime actress Irina Arkadina. An aristocrat, she’s part of Russian intelligentsia and artistic elite and is judgmental of anyone who isn’t. Including her playwright son Konstantin (Billy Howle), whose avant-garde work she openly criticizes. Ignoring her son’s crush on free-spirited local actress Nina (Ronan), Irina introduces a famous writer, Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll) to the impressionable young woman. Complicating the love rhombus are estate manager’s daughter Masha’s (Elisabeth Moss) crush on Konstantin and Irina’s jealousy at the amorous attention Boris showers on Nina.
Director Michael Mayer avoids the stodginess of previous film adaptations, casting actors with the chops to embrace Chekhov’s dialogue but bring it to life, mining the pathos and the often-neglected humour.
Bening is wonderfully cast, bringing a haughtiness to Irina that covers a wide vulnerable streak. As Nina, the star struck actress, Ronan is nails the transformation from wide-eyed ingénue to world-weary with ease but it is two supporting performances that threaten to steal the show from the leads.
As Irina's brother Pjotr Sorin, Brian Dennehy wraps his tongue around Chekhov’s words in a way that sounds like music to the ears.
I suspect that it will be Elisabeth Moss’s Masha people will remember after the final credits roll. Melodramatic and miserable, Masha is tormented by her unrequited feelings for Konstantin and unfulfilled dreams. Moss plays her like a nineteenth century goth, draped in black. “I’m in mourning for my life,” she says. It is tremendous stuff, buoyed by Masha’s use of humour as a protective sword for her exposed feelings. “A lot of women drink,” she says, “just not as openly as I do.”
“The Seagull” doesn’t feel like a filmed version of a stage play. Mayer keeps the camera in constant motion, bringing an up-close-and-personal feel to the story of entangled attractions.