It’s a pretty safe bet with any Russian story written in the nineteenth century that it won’t end in unbridled joy. Or, as Tolstoy famously observed at the beginning of Anna Karenina, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ But that is not to say that the dramas that unfold are not totally absorbing, reflecting the human condition in a manner that has no truck with western cinema’s reluctance to accept disappointment. Anton Chekov’s play, first staged in 1896 and now revived by American director Michael Mayer, is set in the posh dacha owned by Sorin (Brian Dennehy), a prominent jurist. When his sister Irina (Annette Bening), an actress of renown, and her lover, Boris (Corey Stoll), a celebrated writer, arrive for a summer break, starstruck Nina (Saoirse Ronin), from a neighbouring estate, is immediately smitten by him. Boris has the easy charm of Tolstoy’s Vronsky, which is bad news for Irina’s doting son Konstantin (Billy Howle). An indulged young man with literary pretentions who is wont to throw tanties when his genius is not recognised by his elders, for mine he needed a good boot up the arse. Riven by jealousy, his senseless shooting of a seagull is a heartbreaking symbol of love’s tyranny. Complicating matters is the farm manager’s daughter, Masha (Elizabeth Moss), for she is at the mercy of an unrequited passion for Konstantin and is unabashed in easing her chagrin with alcohol. It is a hand-wringing melodrama, for sure, but Chekov can see deep into his characters’ frailties and desires – more than they can themselves – and with Bening, Ronin and Moss all in top form, it is impossible to not be trapped in the web of relationships. An old fashioned voice-over from the family Doctor (Jon Tenney) tells us of Nina’s later movements and prepares us for the tragic finale. Sumptuously filmed at an estate in forested New York, with veteran designer Ann Roth’s costumes perfectly complementing Mayer’s mise en scène, this provides welcome relief from the sub-adult dross of the mainstream.
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