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With: Saoirse Ronan, Annette Bening, Corey Stoll, Billy Howle, Elisabeth Moss, Jon Tenney, Brian Dennehy, Mare Winningham, Glenn Fleshler, Michael Zegen
Written by: Stephen Karam, based on a play by Anton Chekhov
Directed by: Michael Mayer
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some mature thematic elements, a scene of violence, drug use, and partial nudity
Running Time: 98
Date: 05/18/2018

The Seagull (2018)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Chekhov Marks

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Today Anton Chekhov is arguably best known for his plays, and although I count myself as a huge fan of his masterful short stories, I am not terribly familiar with these classic theatrical works (aside from Louis Malle's brilliant Vanya on 42nd Street). I had never seen, nor read The Seagull, so I am perhaps the perfect audience for Michael Mayer's new movie version. Purists will take exception to the movie's use of flashbacks or perhaps its tone, but I found the movie to be just light enough to avoid feeling like a "prestige project" and just weighty enough to feel like it's worth the trouble.

It's, of course, set on a country estate in summertime. Irina Arkadina (Annette Bening) is a proper actress, concerned only with high-class material and with her own fame and appearance; she's a great character, and the way she is presented could be evidence that Chekhov himself was not interested in appearing prestigious. Additionally, Bening has captured her in such a vivid way as to make her appealing, rather than repulsive, and manages to show cracks in the facade at just the right time. It's a masterful performance.

Irina frequently visits her brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy), who lives on the aforementioned estate, and she brings many guests. One is a famous, published author, Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), as well as her son, Konstantin (Billy Howle), who fancies himself a "new" kind of playwright. Konstantin tries to put on a weird, babbling play early in the story, but his mother won't stop her running commentary during the performance, so he throws a tantrum and storms off. Also along for the story is Shamrayev (Glenn Fleshler), who manages the estate, Shamrayev's wife Polina (Mare Winningham), and their daughter, Masha (Elisabeth Moss), who suffers terribly from unrequited love and constantly wears black.

The movie's focus, however, is on Nina (Saoirse Ronan), who lives nearby and hangs around. She and Konstantin have an affectionate relationship, but she swoons when she meets Boris, and Boris in turn is carried away by her tender, youthful adoration. But Irina will not be so easily dumped. Mayer and screenwriter Stephen Karam (normally a playwright, who previously wrote a stage adaptation of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard) open the movie with a flash-forward to events that occur about 2/3 of the way through the story, and when that moment arrives, they play it again, without variation. It's a puzzling motif, and it usually suggests that the filmmakers don't have any confidence in their story's actual, linear beginning.

Aside from that hiccup, however, The Seagull plays quite smoothly. The actors seem to provide the lightness that the material requires, and Mayer lets them. Moss, even though she is in anguish, manages to be both amusing and touching, and even though Dennehy spends most of the movie sitting and/or sleeping, he seems bemused by everything going on around him. The luminous Ronan usually steals whatever movie she's in, and she's wonderful here, but of course Bening is the dominant force. It's a role not unlike Bette Davis's Margo Channing or even Bening's own Julia Lambert in Being Julia (2004). It's showy, but Bening has a moment that elevates her performance to the level of art.

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