In adapting Chekhov’s classic play to the screen, screenwriter Stephen Karam has done an imaginative job, pruning and splitting the theatrical four act structure of this early 20th century theatre piece into short, more cinematic scenes in a variety of very attractive locations. And director Michael Mayer has gathered an impressive cast to act them out.
Irina (Annette Bening), an imperious and self obsessed star of the Moscow stage, is visiting the lakeside country estate she owns with her brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy), a now retired government official. Accompanying Irina is her younger lover Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), a highly acclaimed and successful writer.
On the night of their arrival Irina’s son Konstantin (Billy Howle) is mounting in the garden a play he has written, which is to star his sweetheart Nina (Saoirse Ronan), a would be actress.
Although they adore each other, the mother and son relationship is difficult. The fact that Konstantin is now a young man reminds Irina that she is getting older and so she is constantly putting him down. He in return does the same, contemptuously describing both her and Trigorin’s work as banal and old fashioned. Irina’s insecurities are exacerbated by the interest Trigorin, who is a womaniser, is showing in Nina, who responds adoringly to his flattery.
Meanwhile on the sidelines there is Masha (Elisabeth Moss), whose father manages the estate. She’s the one who famously always dresses in black because she is “in mourning for her life”. She nurtures an unrequited passion for Konstantin, while local schoolmaster Medvedenko (Michael Zegen) is yearning after Masha.
So the scene is set for a tragi-comedy of frustrated passion all round – a “Lord, what fools these mortals be” situation to quote from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.
The characters and situation are beautifully introduced behind the opening titles and the performances are uniformly good. We could have done though with more of Dennehy’s subtle and understated performance as Sorin, wryly commenting on what he sees as his wasted life. And with the smart pace of the production, it is sometimes tricky to get a handle on some of the supporting characters.
Moss has comparatively to do but seizes her few good scenes with alacrity. Stoll looks a touch old for a man described as “not yet 30” but is convincing in his growing obsession with Ronan’s touchingly naïve Nina, playing once more opposite her On Chesil Beach co-star Howle, as the comically irritating yet still sympathetic Konstantin. And Bening has just the right star quality for Irina.
Mayer and Karam do however make one rather strange decision in their adaptation, in that they place the beginning of the last act of the play, when Irina and Trigorin return to the estate because Sorin is at death’s door, at the very opening of the film. They then repeat exactly the same sequence in its chronological place towards the end, which is confusing and could even make you think the projectionist put on the wrong reel at the beginning! Except you can’t do that these days with digital projection. Apart from that though, this is a good, cinematic version of a stage classic and well worth ninety nine minutes of your time.