Michael Mayer's new clipped-wing version of The Seagull left me with a rare feeling: that the movie I'd just watched should have been longer.
Cut down to an hour and half, Anton Chekhov's multicharacter play feels thin and underdeveloped (and not particularly Russian, with flat American accents), and while the first-rate casts generates some good moments here and there, some (Annette Bening) fare better than others (Elisabeth Moss), which seems fair to note in a story that touches on art, fame, and envy.
Bening has the plum role of Irina, an aging, still-famous actress and owner of a country estate now home to a brother in failing health (Brian Dennehy) and an emotionally fragile son Konstantin (Billy Howle), whose ambitious dreams of being an acclaimed writer outstrip his modest talent.
As the story opens, Konstantin and girlfriend, Nina (Saoirse Ronan, coincidentally Howle's costar in the forthcoming On Chesil Beach), are staging his awkward play, a fraught situation made more so by Irina's derisive attitude, and the fact that she's brought home her latest boyfriend Boris (Corey Stoll), who happens to be the sort of celebrated writer Konstantin hopes to be.
For the touchy, moody, and pretentious Konstanin, things could hardly get worse, except, of course, that in Chekhov's hands, they most assuredly do, as Nina falls hard for Boris.
These are just a few of the threads in a much larger, complex pattern of misdirected passions and unrequited love, a story that draws in Masha (Moss), the woman who pines for Konstantin, her mother (Mare Winningham), who loves the local doctor (Jon Tenney) who, for his part, loves being single. Michael Zegen plays a schoolteacher who wanders around wearing Trotsky's hat, professing his love for Masha, who's driven to drink.
Mayer picks up on the layers of bleak comedy in the play — Masha downs so much vodka that she stumbles when rising from afternoon "tea," "My foot's asleep," she says, while Irina gives her a penetrating and icily judgmental glance.
Bening is great fun to watch here, even when she's just watching — looking out her window at the lake, where Boris is taking young (too young) Nina for a boat ride.
Bening understands that Irina can be awful — selfish, self-aggrandizing, cruel to her affection-craving son, but she also understands and conveys what's appealing about her. In a house where everyone speaks in riddles and suffers in silence, Irina's brutal candor is bracing. Mayer likes her, too, and tilts the entire movie toward her big scene with Boris, who ultimately confesses his feelings for Nina.
It's a great speech and good moment for Bening, and it elevates the movie for a few moments, but ultimately there aren't enough of these scenes to support the feelings meant to be generated by the tragic conclusion.