The cast is great, particularly Annette Bening, Elisabeth Moss and Saoirse Ronan. The play is great. But this is still a bad movie, because it has no clear or coherent idea of how to be one.
Watching Annette Bening as Irina Arkadina in “The Seagull,” Michael Mayer’s adaptation of the durable Anton Chekhov play, you might almost believe that the role was written with her in mind. There is very little Bening can’t do, but one of the things she does best is play actresses — the title character in “Being Julia,” Gloria Grahame in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” and now Chekhov’s diva of the late-19th-century Moscow stage.
Irina is charming and silly, imperious and intelligent, tough to the point of cruelty and also exquisitely sensitive. Her brother’s country estate, where nearly all of the drama takes place, is a hive of shifting loyalty, jealousy and desire, dominated by Irina’s grand and difficult personality.
Bening may be the straw that stirs this particular drink, but she is hardly the only marvel in a cast that includes Corey Stoll (as Irina’s lover), Brian Dennehy (as Irina’s perpetually dying brother) and Elisabeth Moss (as the cynical and lovelorn daughter of the estate manager). Supplying the requisite notes of youthful ardor are Billy Howle, as Irina’s melancholy son, and Saoirse Ronan, as the young neighbor he tormentedly loves.
The human ingredients are neatly assembled. But somehow, the execution fails. What is that strange, discordant flavor?
The answer, in a word, is cinema. It’s something Mayer ladles onto “The Seagull” like gravy from a school-cafeteria tub. An able theatrical director, he overwhelms the play with incessant camera movements, busily zooming and swooping through the sets, disrupting scenes with hectic, inexplicable rhythms.
Is this a catastrophe? No. The cast is great, particularly Bening, Moss and Ronan. The play is great. But this is still a bad movie, because it has no clear or coherent idea of how to be one.