Is it a contradiction to call "The Seagull," the authoritative film adaptation of Anton Chekhov's 1895 stage play, a peerlessly wrought interpretation of a theater classic, while also less than a great movie? It's certainly a very good one. But something also is over-intellectualized and bloodless about this version. This despite the play's well-known blood, which unlike its offstage appearance in the source material splatters on camera, halfway through the film, in startling fashion.
Set on a sprawling estate outside Moscow, and covering two years at the dawn of the 20th century, "The Seagull" introduces us to a motley group of people - young, old, rich, poor, failures and successes - with little to do except torment one another. The real violence is psychological.
Chekhov called his plays comedies. But they aren't, at least not in the sense that most understand the word. At best, "The Seagull," with its daisy chain of unrequited love - Medvedenko loves Masha loves Konstantin loves Nina loves Boris, and so on - is a kind of melodrama for brainiacs, offering wry wisdom about human vanity and our capacity for often self-inflicted misery. Here, it's a tragicomedy that feels neither especially tragic nor particularly comic.
The quartet of protagonists who make up the four-chambered heart of Chekhov's ensemble drama are some of the greatest roles in theater: the vain, aging actress Irina (Annette Bening); her son, Konstantin (Billy Howle), an idealistic young writer; his naive girlfriend, Nina (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring actress; and famous author Boris (Corey Stoll), Irina's much younger lover, who quickly catches Nina's eye.
Easier to admire than to love, this "Seagull" cracks Chekhov's sometimes hermetic dialogue open, in a way that only film can, by bringing us up close and personal to the great moping, morose characters he has created. But does that make for a transcendent moviegoing experience?