Anton Chekhov’s oft-filmed and endlessly performed 1895 play is adapted by theatre-intensive director Michael Mayer and scriptwriter Stephen Karam for a handsome enough version with strong playing and much swooning.
Filmed in 2015 (just before co-star Saoirse Ronan probably priced herself out of contention as a cast member), it’s a familiar, ever so slightly hoary tale these days, and the characters are frequently infuriating, whether or not they’re played by Annette Bening and other luminaries. They also wisely speak in unaffected English (see also The Death Of Stalin), as director Mayer didn’t have time for his actors to learn Russian and he knew that there’s nothing sillier than a bad put-on Russian accent.
A getting-on actress named Irina Arkadina (Bening) pays summer visits to her rural-residing brother Pjotr Nikolayevich Sorin (Brian Dennehy) and her aspiring artist son Konstantin (Billy Howle, also in On Chesil Beach with Ronan). When she arrives with her new partner, novelist Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll, a long way from TV’s The Strain), young neighbour Nina (Saoirse) soon falls in love with him, although she’s supposed to be in a relationship with the childish Konstantin.
Boozy Masha (Elisabeth Moss in gloomy mode) is also on hand to fall for desperate Medvedenko (Michael Zegen), and the very American Mare Winningham is good as the longsuffering (aren’t they all?) Polina. And, in the midst of all this intricate romantic activity, Konstantin broods away about his lack of inspiration and his burning need to leave the countryside, to the point that you dearly want to slap him.
Despite some sumptuous detail and the dedicated ensemble, Mayer’s take on Chekhov is most notable for evidently having supplied the template for more than a few Woody Allen movies where characters swap partners (and moan about it) and for the irksome Konstantin influencing several generations’ worth of annoyingly agonising ‘artists’.
The Seagull is in cinemas from Thursday, October 4