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Polished performances in ‘The Seagull,’ but ensemble falls flat

Set in another time, and another culture, the plot of “The Seagull” might have made for a nice romantic comedy. After all, Mikhail loves Masha who’s in love with Constantin who’s in love with Nina who’s in love with Boris who is the lover of Constantin’s mother Irina. This circus of unrequited loves could easily have been tweaked into, say, a charming Richard Curtis film a la “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”

But “The Seagull” is a classic 19th-century Russian play by heavyweight Anton Chekhov, so melancholy overrides merriment, and philosophical ruminations about life rather than sexual hijinks predominate. Tragicomedy, not romantic comedy.

Chekhov is indisputably one of the world’s great playwrights, but he’s proven to be a tough sell on the big screen. His works seem particularly stagebound, with lots and lots of high-brow (aristocratic) talking and minimal action. And to keep the pace from flagging, by movie standards, filmmakers often make drastic cuts at the cost of the play’s depth. It’s also tricky to capture, cinematically, the dual take Chekhov has on his characters. He’s simultaneously mocking and sympathizing with all of them.

With all those caveats in mind, I’d say this version of “The Seagull” does a decent enough job of translating Chekhov to the screen.
Directed by a Tony Award-winning director (Michael Mayer, Spring Awakening) and adapted by a Tony Award-winning playwright (Stephen Karam, The Humans), this film rises above its limitations thanks to a stellar cast. Brian Dennehy, Corey Stoll, and Billy Howle are uniformly excellent, but it’s the women who really stand out.

Annette Bening adds another great performance to her impressive later-in-life star turns (20th Century Women, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool), playing the ridiculously vain aging actress Irina.

Saoirse Ronan keeps alive her recent string of terrific portrayals of young women on the brink (Brooklyn, Ladybird, On Chesil Beach) with her breathless take on the ambitious ingenue Nina.

And finally, Elizabeth Moss’ Masha. She’s not a central character in “The Seagull” but she’s crucial to the tone of the play. Masha is the most consistently unhappy of the unrequited lovers and the way she soldiers on is both admirable and pathetic. And Moss nails the Chekovian humor of her situation.

I’m going to tear this love out of my heart.
How are you going to do that?
I’ll get married.

Bening, Ronan, and Moss are reason enough to see this version of “The Seagull.” But as sparkling as those performances are, they still don’t add up to an entirely satisfying experience. Everyone delivers a perfectly polished characterization but no one seems to be working as an ensemble. That disconnect may even be part of Chekhov’s point, but it robs the movie of a unifying power.

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