It's doubtful that all the comic-book noise at the multiplex is making you long for Chekhov, but hey: Here's the Russian playwright anyway! And unlike Sidney Lumet's misbegotten 1968 film version of The Seagull, this new take on the 1896 theatrical milestone gets the casting right; ditto the tone of comedy running right up against tragedy until something breaks.
Director Michael Mayer, working from a script by Tony-winning playwright Stephen Karam (The Humans), tries hard – sometimes too hard – to avoid the stultifying trap of filmed theater. Things work best when the restless camera stays out of the way of the exemplary actors. Annette Bening deserves a garland of superlatives as Arkadina, the miserly theater diva who is in denial about aging and the insecure playwright son Konstantin (Billy Howle) she only pretends to give a damn about. Visiting her country estate, where her older brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy) lives with Konstantin, Our Lady of the Perpetual Melodramatics is every inch the grand dame. To boost her ego, she has brought along her younger lover, Trigorin (Corey Stoll, mesmerizing), the famed writer who makes her offspring nervous. The son adores and abhors his mother, which leads to an incomprehensible avant-garde play that insults her success. "We need new forms," he proclaims pouting. That leaves his actress girlfriend/muse Nina (Saoirse Ronan) to bask in the glow of the author's celebrity … and his seductive charm.
It's a setup for disaster, and Mayer makes a lively game of it, presenting a household of obsessives in thrall to the wrong people. Elisabeth Moss is perfection as the vodka-swilling Masha, who claims, "I'm in mourning for my life" – because she longs for Konstantin as a schoolteacher (Michael Zegen) longs for her. Masha's mother (Mare Winningham) does the unrequited thing with Dr. Dorn (Jon Tenney). Meanwhile Konstantin comes apart when Nina falls for their celebrity guest.
There are times when you wish Thanos would appear to smite them all to perdition. But Chekhov is too much the humanist not to let compassion sneak in. And the actors do wonders with filling in the spaces between words. The gifted Ronan is saddled with making sense of the complicated Nina – good luck with that – but shines in her scenes with Arkadina, especially when she enters a competition that she can't win. And Bening, naturally, is magnificent, finding vestiges of compassion in Arkadina that haven't yet been lost to vanity.
Purists may object to the cuts the filmmakers have made to Chekhov's text in the name of pacing. (And nuts to that tricked-up ending!) But The Seagull still flies on the wings of humor and heartbreak that made it a Chekhov classic in the first place.