"THE SEAGULL" — 2½ stars — Elisabeth Moss, Saoirse Ronan, Annette Bening, Corey Stoll; PG-13 (some mature thematic elements, a scene of violence, drug use, and partial nudity); in general release
Based on the late 19th-century play by Anton Chekhov, "The Seagull" employs an impressive cast to share the story of some truly miserable people.
Set in 1902 — just a few years before the Russian Revolution — Michael Mayer's film follows the dramatic exploits of artists who have taken residence on a countryside farm outside Moscow.
The central figure is Irina (Annette Bening), an aging actress and egotistical elitist. She's currently involved with a younger man, a famous writer named Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll). Irina's son Konstantin (Billy Howle) is an aspiring playwright, but his efforts to impress his mother and Boris — which involve Konstantin's actress girlfriend Nina (Saoirse Ronan) — are only met with impatience and haughty sarcasm.
We also meet Irina's brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy), and Masha (Elisabeth Moss), a young woman with an unrequited affection for Konstantin who always insists on wearing black, explaining that she's mourning her own life. Such egregious self-pity is no turn-off for a local schoolteacher named Mikhail (Michael Zegen), whose affection for Masha is matched only by his insistence on constantly referencing his modest income.
When Irina insults Konstantin's latest opus, her son is terribly offended, fractures his relationship with Nina and targets his anger at Boris, who he believes has insincere motives with his mother. Konstantin is proven right when a doting Nina starts spending excess time with Boris, which naturally leads the author to question his commitment to his May-December relationship with Irina.
A failed suicide attempt underscores the passion behind Konstantin's angst, and scene after scene demonstrates that pretty much everyone involved in this countryside mess is miserable to one degree or another.
As you might expect, "The Seagull" is primarily a showcase for its veteran cast, and in that sense, Bening stands out as the film's most colorful and memorable character. Mix in one part obliviousness and two parts malice, and you get the jealous, diabolical, yet airheaded Irina.
At one point she pulls a dour Masha close to her and begs her doctor to tell her who looks younger. On the surface, Irina persuades Masha to take better care of herself, but the actress' transparent need for gushing validation is obvious to everyone.
Well-versed fans of Chekhov may disagree, but Mayer's film doesn't give the audience quite enough story to merit the emotional resonance it desires. Konstantin is every bit the lovestruck victim, but Howle's character isn't quite sympathetic enough to get you to feel for his predicament (we don't spend near enough of the film's 98-minute running time with anyone to generate a real connection).
Plus, a patch of clunky exposition that transitions into the third act (which takes place two years after the events at the farm) further complicates the story issues.
While "The Seagull" certainly has its strong points, the weak points make it difficult to recommend fully. "The Seagull's" chief draw may be its cast, followed closely by the curious window to a lifestyle on a foreboding countdown to revolution.
"The Seagull" is rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements, a scene of violence, drug use, and partial nudity; running time: 98 minutes.