It’s been 50 years since the last major film adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s 1896 masterpiece, in which a narcissistic actress plays flattering host to a famous middlebrow playwright, much to the annoyance of her spiky son, Konstantin. Sidney Lumet’s 1968 version was a faithful yet tin-eared adaptation, saved by outstanding performances from James Mason and David Warner.
For a play that’s partly about the calcification of dramatic forms, it’s dispiriting that this new film version, adapted by Tony-winning playwright Stephen Karam and director Michael Mayer (‘A Home at the End of the World’), sticks so closely to the source material. What we need is a film version of last year’s Lyric Hammersmith revival, set in the present day and bursting with a level of inspiration of which Chekhov, and his avatar Konstantin, would approve. Mayer seems so preoccupied with avoiding accusations of staginess that he keeps the camera swirling around like some kind of, well, sea bird. It’s especially distracting when actors of the calibre of Annette Bening and Saoirse Ronan are at work. The rest of the cast are a mixed bag: Elisabeth Moss, normally brilliant, is tiresomely one-note here, but newcomer Billy Howle makes a strong impression as Konstantin.