Michael Mayer delivers a lively but uneven big-screen take on ‘The Seagull’

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On a visit to her family’s estate, Irina (Annette Bening) brings along her lover (Corey Stoll) in “The Seagull.” | SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

Productions of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” almost always tip too far into farce or wade too deeply into tragedy, unable to sustain the play’s elusive balancing act. Michael Mayer’s lush and lively big-screen adaption is unfortunately no exception.

On the plus side, Mayer, a veteran theater director, has if anything leaned more into the comic nature of “The Seagull.” Chekhov, whose play was first performed in 1896, did indeed call it a comedy. That makes this “Seagull” a kind of flipside to Sidney Lumet’s dull and sluggish 1968 version, essentially the only other significant film adaptation of one of Chekhov’s most beloved works.

Working from a script by Stephen Karam, Mayer seems eager to swing entirely in the other direction — perhaps too eager. His “Seagull,” the director’s third feature film (after “Flicka” and ”A Home at the End of the World”), shrinks some of the play’s dialogue, robbing it of its rhythm, while never resting his ever-moving camera nor quieting its ever-stirring score. For a distinctly Russian play, he’s made a notably American film, pleasantly unstuffy (there are no forced accents here and the language is more colloquial) but also less substantial and lacking the tenor of Chekhov’s music.

“The Seagull” is set around the Treplev family estate (a glorious lakeside upstate New York mansion doubles for rural Russia) where Irina Arkadina (Annette Bening) has come to visit her brother, Sorin (Brian Dennehy), and her brooding aspiring playwright son, Konstantin (Billy Howle). Irina is an aging actress of the Moscow stage and she brings along her lover, the celebrated writer Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), whose presence in the provincial household begets numerous anxieties.

Trigorin’s success is the envy of Konstantin, who soon finds his sweetheart, Nina Zarechnaya (Saoirse Ronan), is lured by the preying Trigorin. Unrequited love runs rampant in “The Seagull.” (It also afflicts Elisabeth Moss’ Masha). Characters, many of them knowingly, are the helpless victims of the fluctuations of their self-defeating heart — especially when mixed with potentially misguided artistic ambitions.

It’s a talented cast, but the only one at home in their role is Bening, who has recently, as Gloria Grahame in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” and in “Being Julia,” proven exceptional at portraying the waning glamour and growing distress of divas late in life. She’s funny and broken at once, perfectly poised in that Chekhovian limbo.

Jake Coyle, Associated Press

‘The Seagull’

★★

Sony Pictures Classics presents a film directed by Michael Mayer and written by Stephen Karam, based on the play by Anton Chekhov. Rated PG-13 (for some mature thematic elements, a scene of violence, drug use, and partial nudity). Running time: 98 minutes. Opens Friday atLandmark Century Centre Cinema.

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