The Seagull
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You love her
But she loves him
And he loves somebody else
You just can’t win

—The J. Geils Band, “Love Stinks”

It’s summertime on a nineteenth-century Russian country estate, and love triangles are colliding in a tangle of messy geometry.

The aging stage actress Irina is visiting her lover Trigorin, a famous writer from Moscow. Alas, Trigorin is bewitched by young Nina, who is with Konstantin, Irina’s resentful son. Meanwhile, the schoolteacher Medvedenko is obsessed with Masha, daughter of the steward, whose wife, Polina, is in love with the town physician, Yevgeny, who’s pursuing—you know what? Never mind.

The important thing to know about the new cinematic adaptation of The Seagull, Anton Chekhov’s classic play, is that the three lead female roles are played by Annette Bening, Elisabeth Moss, and Saoirse Ronan. It’s worth seeking out just to see these performers, three of the best screen actors working today, mucking about in all the Chekhovian mischief.

A little history goes a long way. Chekhov is considered Russia’s greatest playwright. He introduced subtle characterizations and psychological complexity to the theater at a time when broad melodrama ruled. Modern audiences have grown up with such sophisticated storytelling—thanks in large part to Chekhov, actually—so those seeing The Seagull for the first time might wonder what all the fuss is about. Onscreen, it doesn’t feel as epic as its reputation. It plays like a talky indie dramedy with corsets and carriage horses. But this kind of storytelling was new in 1896, radical in its day.

Unfortunately, Broadway director Michael Mayer (American Idiot) doesn’t attempt any radical moves of his own. There are no significant transpositions in time or place, and all the action is confined to the lonely rural manor. As such, the film feels stagy and inert, despite several sustained technical flourishes with handheld cameras and shuffled dialogue. There are a few effective moments of wry humor. I liked it when the village physician offered to tranquilize everyone and put an end to all the drama. But it’s only in the very last scene that the story fully comes alive as cinema, thanks to a pleasantly weird callback stunt.

I don’t know about you, but I always have trouble identifying with nineteenth-century Russia’s landed gentry. It’s a testament to the unknowable magic of screen acting that the performers—especially Bening and Moss—manage to convey the story’s essential humanity and humor across all those years and miles.