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'The Seagull' review: Fame is the name of the game

Saoirse Ronan stars as Nina in "The Seagull".

Saoirse Ronan stars as Nina in "The Seagull".  Credit: Sony Pictures Classics/Nicole Rivelli

PLOT One famous actress, two writers and a teenage girl send ripples through each other’s lives.

CAST Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Corey Stoll

RATED PG-13 (adult themes)


PLAYING AT Bellmore Movies, Loews Roosevelt Raceway 10 in Westbury and Manhasset Cinemas

BOTTOM LINE A beautifully acted and subtly relevant take on Chekhov’s still-modern stage play.

On its face, Michael Mayer’s “The Seagull” is the kind of movie that has lately fallen out of fashion: the straightforward literary adaptation. Based on Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” and featuring a fine cast led by four-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening, this is cinema with a pedigree. Mayer and his screenwriter, Stephen Karam, are both award-winning theater veterans.

Relevance may not jump out of the screen during “The Seagull,” but it’s there. “The Seagull,” like Chekhov's most famous work, “The Cherry Orchard,” focuses on a gathering of people who, over a period of time, reveal their true selves and affect each other’s lives (mostly for the worse). It isn’t Chekhov’s naturalistic dialogue or keen insights that seem so up-to-the-moment, though. It’s that these 19th century characters are, like people today, obsessed with fame.

Bening plays Irina, a renowned stage actress who brings her new beau, popular novelist Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), to her country house for a vacation. She hardly cares that her son, Konstantin (Billy Howle), also a writer, can’t stand the more successful man’s presence. That’s one of the play’s many overlapping love triangles, and here’s another: Long-suffering Masha (Elisabeth Moss) is in love with Konstantin, but he only has eyes for pretty Nina (Saoirse Ronan). Here's yet another: Nina, who dreams of being on stage, sees a chance to replace Irina as Boris’ lover.

The acting is pitch-perfect, and not just from Bening as the needy, thoughtless, often cruel Irina. Ronan’s Nina gushes youthfully about fame and grandeur, while Stoll’s jaded Trigorin realizes only slowly that he’s just found a groupie. Howle, as the overly romantic Konstantin, balances nicely between a comic and tragic figure; Moss’ heartbreaking Masha is fully tragic. In smaller roles, Brian Dennehy, Mare Winningham and Jon Tenney provide more than a few moments of poignancy.

It’s worth heeding this play’s warning that fame can be illusory, even when attained. It’s Nina who sounds most modern of all when she swears she’d endure poverty and squalor if it means achieving her goal. “In return, I’d demand fame,” she says. “Real, resounding fame.”

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