Swelling, as it does, toward an exquisite climactic monologue on the subject of endurance itself, Anton Chekhov’s what’s-it-all-for? comedy The Seagull can afford to demand a bit of patience. But Michael Mayer’s sunnily bleak all-star film, I fear, squirms through the first acts of Chekhov’s masterpiece the way a cast member’s 8-year-old cousin might in a theater seat. Mayer (who won a Tony for directing Spring Awakening) has whipped up a tiresomely restless Seagull, shot and edited, for much of its first half, as if the crew had been seized by the conviction that seeing one actor speak and another respond in the same shot is antithetical to the very idea of cinema. It’s one thing to break up Chekhov’s lengthy drawing-room scenes into shorter encounters set through and outside the lake house in which everyone’s ennui gets aired, as screenwriter Stephen Karam does here; it’s another to deny us the pleasure of watching the actors respond to one another, of seeing the characters process each other’s confessions and insults and blasé indifference.
The editing is aggressive, too many shots cut tight as a corset, strangling the breath from the scenes. The camerawork is fidgety to the point of distraction. The rapid push-in shots, zipping across a room and into a speaker’s face, are the kind of thing you see when a cartoon or a comedy traces a spark’s race along a lit fuse. That makes a rough thematic sense, in a way: The tired, wounded souls of The Seagull are forever lighting bombs in one another’s faces. But rather than open up the play for filmgoers, all this pushy technique merely limits our view. Onstage, we get to choose which face to regard, to watch each hard truth or unexamined lie crash against each character’s carefully maintained set of illusions. Here, we mostly see one face at a time.
Those faces are grand enough that this Seagull still has much to recommend it. As the aging stage actor facing the truth that her lover is bewitched by a much younger woman, Annette Bening parades before us a succession of peerless façades. Her Irina insists that she’s simultaneously the grand dame and the ingenue — and that she doesn’t notice half of what she sees. Bening delicately reveals Irina’s doubts and the persistent effort those façades demand. In the second hour, Mayer settles down, and in a pair of scenes in which Irina tries to get what she needs from the men in her life, Bening proves commanding, heartbreaking and admirably unsentimental in her portrayal.
If you’re not familiar with the play, you may find yourself disappointed, at first, in Saoirse Ronan’s turn as Nina, the actual ingenue. Beaming in her youthful promise, and sometimes literally haloed by the production design, Nina, a wannabe stage star herself, catches the heart of Boris (Corey Stoll), Irina’s lover and a writer of fiction about the mores of his countrymen, something like Chekhov’s own short stories. Over the decades, Woody Allen has filched a lot from Chekhov, and Nina suggests, in the film’s first half, the kind of dreadful muse role he might want to write for Ronan. Her smile seems to have the summer in it, and soon hapless Boris is ready to upend his own life for her — he comes this close to telling her that the heart wants what it wants. But Chekhov’s sympathies range wider than Allen’s; his interest in Nina and Boris lies not in how good she makes Boris briefly feel but in what little Nina actually gets out of the inevitable affair.
Ronan’s delivery of the bear one’s cross and have faith speech is wrenching and rousing, a young woman disappointed in the rut that is her life but steadfast in her commitment to mistakes that forged it. She tears into the words with theatrical zest, as restive as the camera and editing in the film’s first half, but here that energy is electric. Ronan is a great screen actor playing a mediocre stage actor telling terrifying truths while still lying to herself and to her listener. It’s a marvelous portrait of faith as delusion — but whether it’s worth waiting for, I leave to you.
Oh, Elisabeth Moss is hysterically, bitterly funny as the unhappy Masha, but she’s in the movie less than 10 minutes.