Michael Mayer's The Seagull, a fluid and faithful reading of the endlessly remounted stage play by Anton Chekhov, opens and closes with what looks like the same scene. The curtain has just gone down on a final act, and we hear clapping as the camera moves in to focus on leading lady Irina (Annette Bening, in superb command as always), flushed and beaming under the adulation she plainly can't get enough of. Until, that is, someone whispers troubling news in Irina's ear and rushes her away to — where else? — her lush country estate by a lake, where her sick brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy) has taken a turn for the worse.
There's something about art and life here, and by the end, when the scene repeats with implied but crucial differences, the overlap between the two will get a thorough workout. That's if you're paying attention: Like so much of Chekhov's deceptively naturalistic work, The Seagull can be read (and probably was, and will be, in many a Comp. Lit. class) as just another bunch of unhappy Russians gassing on about how life has failed them. But how beautifully this top-drawer cast gases, in playwright Stephen Karam's crafty adaptation of a play that Chekhov insisted was a comedy.
Karam doffs his cap to the darkly funny backbone that Chekhov brought to bear on the well-worn theme of unrequited love. Like many women who depend on their looks for their livelihood and their self-esteem, the actress Irina has taken a much younger lover, successful playwright Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll, aka Congressman Russo in House of Cards). She also cruelly undermines Konstantin, her as-yet-unknown playwright son (a goofily hapless Billy Howle), whose youth provides a constantly unwelcome reminder of her own aging.
Locked in neurotic symbiosis with his mother, Konstantin also pines after Nina (Saoirse Ronan), a fair but fickle maiden on loan from another estate. Nursing grand ambitions of her own, Nina sets her sights at Trigorin, who is never one to turn down firm young flesh. Rounding out this lovelorn crew is a terrifically funny, achingly sad Elisabeth Moss as Masha, the snuff-snorting, liquor-swilling estate manager. She tags miserably along after an irritated Konstantin while swatting away her un-swattable suitor (Michael Zegen), a dull but dependable teacher.
You get the picture, but though The Seagull has its moments of quietly knockabout farce, mostly the movie inclines intimately, subtly, to the sadness of the incomplete life. In director Mayer's rhythmic pacing, the blemishes of one lost soul bleed into another's suffering, which gets paid forward in an endless roundelay of thwarted desire and crushed dreams. Their hurts and sorrows seem common enough — love not returned, the complicated bond of mothers and sons, paths not taken, paths taken and regretted — and Mayer plays them out in a drifting ebb and flow set against a serenely bucolic landscape belied by the turmoil within each savage breast.
On its opening night in Russia in 1896, The Seagull was all but booed off the stage by bewildered theatergoers schooled to expect upper-register melodrama. Devastated, Chekhov failed to show up for a fresh staging two years later, when audiences awakened to his poignant subtext rose in their seats to applaud the art of a writer then better-known for his short stories than his plays. Not for nothing is Konstantin a misunderstood experimenter with form.
Naturalism is second nature to us these days, at least in indie chamber pieces like The Seagull. Yet Chekhov's lack of moralism may baffle today's moviegoers, or at least make them uneasy with the apparent lack of payoff in the plotting. No monsters lurk here, unless you count Trigorin, a heedless but likable cad who's a prisoner of his compulsion to turn every astutely observed interaction into copy. But the rest of this uneasy ensemble is imprisoned as well, writhing in the grip of their obsessions and their longings for completion.
There are no saints among them either, unless you count the observant, tolerant and obligatory doctor (Jon Tenney) who's very good at reading the room but not much good at committing to those inside it. Irina is a terrible mother who really loves her son, while Masha can't surrender her own fruitless passion for a young man way outside her league.
If there's a moral to the story it's that we humans, however chastened by time and error, never learn from bitter experience. By the time the opening scene repeats, two years have passed, and what began as everyday misery threatens to deepen into tragedy. Far from sorting them out, The Seagull, true to its author, turns life into art that's bold enough to ask, "How shall we live?" and brave enough to answer, "With great difficulty."