Dir: Michael Mayer | Cast: Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Corey Stoll, Elizabeth Moss, Billy Howle, Brian Dennehy, Michael Zegen; USA 2018, 98 min.
Director Michael Mayer (A Town at the Edge of the World) is more at home on Broadway than behind the camera, where he has clipped this vision of Chekhov’s play down to 98 minutes – the average stage outing is well over two and a half hours. There’s something missing here, but a brilliant ensemble at least makes everything enjoyable.
On their country estate near Moscow, fading actor Irina (Bening) gets together with her older brother Sorin (Dennehy), a retired civil-servant who is also on his last legs. They are joined by her lover, the mediocre but popular writer Boris Trigorin (Stoll) who is obsesse with the cult of his own personality. With them is Irina’s son Konstantin (Howle) a so-so symbolist writer who yearns to get away from the torpor or the countryside. He is in love with Nina (Ronan), a young woman from a neighbouring estate, who dreams of a career on the stage. Schoolteacher Mikhail (Zegen) is soft on Masha (Moss), who puts him down in public and is secretly in love with Konstantin.
Irina’s post-oedipal relationship with her son erupts on the evening of the amateur performance of his absurdist play, which his mother mocks. Konstanti lowers the curtain prematurely while, Nina, acting her heart out, attracts Trigorin’s attraction. Irina and Konstantin spend the next day sulking like teenagers and Nina confesses her dreams to an infatuated Trigorin. But Irina has no truck with Trigorin, blackmailing him emotionally before literally fleeing the estate, dragging Trigorin with her, leaving all love conundrums unsolved.
Two years later it emerges that Nina ran away from home to have a child with Tregorin, which later died leaving him to slink back sheepishly to Irina. Her acting career is reduced to a third rate repertoire company, travelling around Russia third class (“with all the peasants”). Konstantin fares slightly better, still remaining deeply unhappy, whereupon Nina opts to return to the stage. Meanwhile, Masha has married Mikhail, but not even their baby has softened Irina’s heart, she longs for Konstantin. But after all these ups and downs between the sheets from town to country, a resolution eventually seems inevitable.
The play’s premiere in 1896 was a complete disaster, and Chekhov wanted to give up writing for the stage altogether, but Stanislavski’s production two years later was a great success – luckily, Chekhov had changed his mind.
Whilst Mayer (and script writer Stephan Karam) manage to convey the main characters’ desire for drama, they are unable to point to a wider existential trauma. Nobody is exactly a spring chicken – apart from Nina and Konstantin, they all behave like moody, self-obsessed teenagers. They all behave like actors using their craft to gain the smallest of advantages. Trigorin is the main example, he discards Nina like an object. Mayer fails to show the inner emptiness of his main protagonists – any idealism expressed by Nina or Konstantin is rebuffed and exploited by the elders. There’s also a lack of melancholy, the subtext is missing.
DoP Matthew J. Loyd’s cinematography evokes the lush countryside and lake. The costumes and interiors show a meticulous attention to the era. Saoirse Ronan is a brilliant Nina, only surpassed by the splendidly scheming Irina, Bening changing moods like a chameleon. Unfortunately, Mayer never manages to grasp the essense of Chekhov’s multi-layered play. AS
ON RELEASE FROM 6 SEPTEMBER NATIONWIDE