The works of Anton Chekhov don’t adapt easily to movies, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying. According to the Internet Movie Database, 500 films have been made from or inspired by the great Russian writer’s plays, short stories, and novels. They nevertheless resist, because movies photograph the outside of things and urge us to connect the dots (and shots), whereas Chekhov somehow X-rayed the insides of people reaching out to each other without ever meeting. There may be no more Chekhovian sound than the haunting and unexplained snapping of an unseen string at the end of “The Cherry Orchard.”
Still, directors have a go, and Michael Mayer is the latest, with “The Seagull.” The film casts Annette Bening as the vain, aging stage actress Irina Arkadina, Saoirse Ronan as the naive country beauty Nina, and Elisabeth Moss as bitter Masha, dressed in black “in mourning for my life.” Those are three excellent reasons to see the movie, and the filmmaking fights them almost every step of the way.
Mayer is a celebrated theater director with more than 30 stage productions under his belt and a Tony for Broadway’s “Spring Awakening” (2006); he has directed two earlier movies, a delicate and very touching adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s 1990 novel, “A Home at the End of the World” (2004), and “Flicka” (2006), a family film. This is his first attempt to film a play. It shows.
The setting is a country estate near Moscow, where Irina and her new lover, Trigorin (Corey Stoll), a celebrated and much younger writer, have repaired to be with her ailing brother (Brian Dennehy). Irina’s son, Konstantin (Billy Howle), is as impassioned and absurdly idealistic as a young man can be; he writes dreadful symbolist plays and is in love with Nina, who is in love with Trigorin, who is in love with himself.
(Masha, the daughter of the estate’s tenant farmer, is in love with Konstantin. Simon, the mild-mannered schoolteacher played by Michael Zegen of Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” is in love with Masha. True love in Chekhov is the farce that never happens with the person who’s least right for you.)
Adding a touch of impotent wisdom to the proceedings is the local intellectual, Dr. Dorn (Jon Tenney), who’s having an affair with the farmer’s wife (Mare Winningham), who weeps a lot. In spite of this, “The Seagull” is a comedy — it just laughs very darkly and with a kind of hard benevolence at the mess we make of things. And intuitive, inquisitive actors can have a field day with Chekhov’s characters, for whom it sometimes seems subtext, the stating of one thing while clearly saying another, was invented.
Bening gives a prismatic performance that lets you see every side of Irina’s monstrous and pitiable ego, and Ronan stealthily lets corruptive ambition slide into Nina’s girlishness. Stoll’s Trigorin is a playful destroyer, and his scenes with the two women are tricky displays of manipulation and self-serving delusion. Moss is just fantastic, brutally caustic in her too-few scenes as Masha. The cast can’t be faulted. (Ronan and Howle fare better as fraught newlyweds in “On Chesil Beach,” also opening this week.)
If only the filmmaking would let them be. Instead, Mayer and his cinematographer, Matthew J. Lloyd, send the camera swooping and diving among the characters, cluttering up Chekhov’s lethal gaze. The editing (by Annette Davey) is sometimes startlingly clumsy; reaction shots of the supporting cast — i.e., the maids — can feel overdone. “The Seagull” is a textbook case of over-direction, of an artist struggling to find a visual equivalent for psychological truths and ending up with fussiness. (The score by Nico Muhly and Anton Sanko is a compensating tonic.)
The three-hour play has been winnowed down to a brisk 98 minutes, which really doesn’t allow for the necessary dramatic stewing — Chekhov takes his time because he wants us to see, rather than be shown. And if you know the play well, you may be taken aback by Mayer’s choice to visualize its final off-stage event while cutting the play’s last line, one of the more famous in theater history. Great, thoughtful acting can take you only so far, and “The Seagull” has been brought into close-up without ever coming into focus.
Directed by Michael Mayer. Written by Stephen Karam, based on the play by Anton Chekhov. Starring Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Corey Stoll, Billy Howle, Elisabeth Moss. At Kendall Square, West Newton. 98 minutes. PG-13 (some mature thematic elements, a scene of violence, drug use, partial nudity).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.