Playwright Anton Chekhov’s oft-tread comedy of manners “The Seagull” may not instantly scream 2018 movie remake, but Broadway and film director Michael Mayer, with a strong assist from playwright-screenwriter Stephen Karam, has fashioned a new screen version that’s an enticing, amusing and passionate showcase for its top-drawer cast led by a once-again superb Annette Bening.
Although the action, set in the early 1900s, unfolds almost entirely in and around a Russian lakeside estate, the film rarely feels static or stagy, with enough brisk editing, active camerawork and intimate framing to make for satisfying cinema.
Karam, a 2016 Tony Award-winner for “The Humans,” has effectively tightened and reworked Chekhov’s four-act text — even adding a (non-essential) time-jumping device — resulting in a swifter and perhaps more audience-friendly telling than usual. (Sidney Lumet’s 1968 feature adaptation starring Simone Signoret, for instance, ran more than 40 minutes longer.)
Bening rounds out a trifecta of memorable recent performances, following “20th Century Women” and “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” with her grand portrayal of vain, aging Moscow stage star Irina Arkadina, who descends, along with her younger writer boyfriend, Boris (Corey Stoll), upon the country home of her retired brother, Sorin (Brian Dennehy), for a summer visit.
Once there, Irina settles in amid a household of pining, regretful folks, most of whom, as so many classic stories would have it, are in love with the wrong person.
They include Irina’s melodramatic son, Konstantin (Billy Howle), an aspiring playwright who’s gaga over acting hopeful Nina (Saoirse Ronan), a naive but ambitious local girl smitten with the successful Boris, who will eventually return her ardor.
Then there’s the tippling, melancholy Masha (a glorious Elisabeth Moss), she of the famed avowal “I’m in mourning for my life,” who longs for Konstantin, but is pursued by poor schoolteacher Mikhail (Michael Zegen).
Meanwhile, Masha’s anxious mother, Polina (Mare Winningham), wife of Sorin’s property manager, Shamrayev (Glenn Fleshler), has long desired handsome country doctor Dorn (Jon Tenney), a onetime lover of Irina.
This roundelay of romance plays out in scenes and exchanges that can be buoyant and funny but also harshly candid and even tragic as these vivid characters explore many of life’s big issues: growing older, artistic achievement, the pursuit of fame, the paths not taken, jealousy, loneliness, the pain and joys of love, and more. And let’s not forget the good news-bad news meaning of that title bird.
Perhaps because Chekhov, considered a founding father of modern drama, had an early penchant for writing subtextual dialogue, the story retains a contemporary feel, despite its period trappings. As for those, veteran film and Broadway costumer Ann Roth and production designer Jane Musky, refashioning a scenic Monroe, N.Y., manor house (which stood in for the Russian estate), make ace contributions.
Rated: PG-13, for some mature thematic elements, a scene of violence, drug use, and partial nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Playing: Arclight Hollywood; The Landmark, West Los Angeles.