- Angie Errigo
- 3 September 2018
Anton Chekhov's masterpiece is brought to the screen with a fine cast but lack of unifying vision
Celebrated, ageing actress Irina (Annette Bening) and her younger lover, famous writer Boris (Corey Stoll), descend on the country estate of her ailing brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy) – a seemingly idyllic lakeside scene that's already a hotbed of love triangles.
The estate manager's unhappy, vodka-swilling daughter Masha (Elisabeth Moss) is hopelessly in love with Irina's angry, angst-ridden son Konstantin (Billy Howle), an aspiring writer who loves his innocent neighbour Nina (Saoirse Ronan). An impoverished schoolteacher pesters Masha with his unwanted advances. And Masha's mother Polina (Mare Winningham) has it bad for the local doctor (Jon Tenney), who still savours memories of his affair with Irina. Oh boy. When the star-struck Nina falls passionately for Boris he is entranced by her naive ardour, setting off an inevitable chain reaction of emotional devastation.
The 1896 premiere of Anton Chekhov's now-classic first play was a debacle, it being an era of melodramas in which audiences expected a lot of conventional stuff to happen. Apparently they were taken aback by a masterpiece of ironic tragicomedy, exploring what goes on in people's heads. But two years later legendary actor-director Konstantin Stanislavski's Moscow Art Theatre production was a triumph that has reverberated through modern theatre and cinema history – a landmark of naturalism. The massively influential play is a timeless take on being human – neither villainous nor heroic but real, warts and all – when it is acted with beautifully felt and observed detail and directed with unifying vision.
And here is the problem. At the helm is stage director Michael Mayer who moves between drama, musicals and opera, but has a less accomplished track record when it comes to film. He has a cast he can do a lot with: Ronan is luminously longing and Bening is a wow as the self-absorbed star anxiously clinging to her allure and illusions, intent on being the centre of attention even at the expense of humiliating and belittling her son. The moments when she reveals any love and concern for him are rare, and heartbreaking.
Stoll is strong as Boris – attractive, knowing, detached and superior, but vain and ruthless enough to toy with a fragile girl he knows he will ruin. Moss's Masha has the play's favourite line: when asked why she always wears black she answers, 'I'm in mourning. For my life.' But her misery is a trifle too droll, while Howle's emo boy Konstanin is so mopey it's hard to buy Masha's obsession with him, or believe in the creative talent he is so desperate to have acknowledged.
The directorial overview connecting these dots is a little wanting, as is the screenplay by Tony-winning playwright Stephen Karam. Perhaps less attention to pretty pictures of the lake and woods would have been better, because the subtleties and subtexts of the piece – which explores family, love, loss and the Oedipal complex, as well as class, art, morality and tradition versus modernity – are only superficially touched on.
Thus we arrive at an umpteenth adaptation of a masterwork that is open to endless interpretation. Like so many, it is interesting and in parts fruitful, but not entirely satisfying or affecting.
Selected release from Fri 7 Sep.