Bening, ronan bring class to classic film

Annette Bening and Elisabeth Moss in a scene from the movie "The Seagull," based on Anton Chekhov's play.

Annette Bening and Elisabeth Moss in a scene from the movie "The Seagull," based on Anton Chekhov's play.

By Tom Jozwik

Published June 14, 2018

A number of well-known stage plays have ultimately found their way to movie houses, often with their scripts adapted into screenplays. The latest example, “The Seagull,” has been running in the Milwaukee metro area. A review of the film follows.

While Michael Mayer’s “The Seagull” isn’t for everybody, the movie will likely impress its target audience (presumably the “Masterpiece Theatre” crowd).

Based on Anton Chekhov’s celebrated 1895 drama, “The Seagull” is a quick study of well-delineated characters, the most prominent of them actresses portrayed by Annette Bening and Saoirse Ronan, and writers played by Billy Howle and Corey Stoll. (Ronan and Howle star in another recently released movie, “On Chesil Beach.”) “The Seagull’s” setting is summertime, at a country mansion.

The love of his life

Among a group of approximately a dozen upper class vacationers and their servants, just about everyone’s in love with someone other than the person who loves him or her. This creates cases of “loving with no hope,” as the alcoholic Masha, rendered by Elisabeth Moss, so perceptively puts it, and even sadder consequences.

Masha, one of the worker group, constantly wears black, explaining, “I’m in mourning for my life.” Trigorin (Stoll), famed writer of fiction whose cloying mistress and sugar mama is Bening’s Irina, admits to having “no will of my own” and to being “haunted” by an unforgiving need to put pen to paper. Irina refuses to face the onslaught of aging and can’t seem to curb her need to make nasty, hurtful comments to her playwright son, Konstantin (Howle). “You’re nobody,” she tells him at one point.

The love of the young playwright’s life, the budding thespian Nina who “makes (his) heart race” (Ronan), points out to Konstantin that “nothing happens in your plays,” that “everyone’s dead” in them. Maybe that’s why Nina eventually sets her bonnet for Trigorin; the celebrity author’s characters are, as one of his fellow vacationers puts it, decidedly “alive.”

Bening and Ronan 'intriguing'

Short scenes and some lovely orchestral renderings of classical pieces prove engrossing. The combination of lighter music and focal character shifts provide a surprising sense of movement to what could’ve been a dishwater-dull talkie. Screenwriter Stephen Karam’s contemporary language makes the Chekhovian drama more accessible, while somehow complementing the circa 1900 costumes.

The acting is probably at least as good as you’d find in a live professional production. Bening and Ronan are intriguing, playing characters very different from the ones they respectively portrayed in “20th Century Women” and “Lady Bird.” Stoll (TV’s “The Strain”) is ever watchable as the never-quite-satisfied Trigorin.

“The Seagull’s script,” notably, fires a few potshots at the institution Chekhov was helping to modernize. The “theatre’s trite and riddled with vulgarity,” Howle as Konstantin harrumphs early on.

But “The Seagull” on film is neither.

This film is rated PG-13.