It’s a dominoes game of unrequited love that begins with a deathbed alarm sounded by the household staff at the sumptuous manor in the Russian countryside belonging to sister and brother Irina (Annette Bening) and Sorin (Brian Dennehy). Though it’s Sorin who’s dying, Irina, a self-centered actress teetering on the brink of becoming a has-been, takes center stage. She issues high-maintenance bids for attention whenever she feels threatened by a lag or sag in her magnetism. Irina brings with her an entourage of one, her much younger lover, Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), a writer, the Golden Boy du jour of the Moscow literati. A competing reluctant admirer in her life is her son Konstantin (Billy Howle), a backyard playwright with an imagination stoked by rebellion against the legitimate stage. As Irina makes sport of her son’s creative efforts, he manages—unwittingly— to undermine her dazzle when his aspiring actress girlfriend Nina (Saoirse Ronan), falls under the spell of Boris’ reticent charm and opportune brand.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream-like cascade of folly teases out the loves-me-loves-me-not seating arrangements in this ill-fated round of musical chairs. Everyone playing is subordinating living for today to living for a future with someone who is not interested in a future with them. The outstanding exception, ironically, is the dying man, Sorin, who, though wheezing and sputtering through his final days, enjoys what remains of them, even as he dispenses carpe diem kernels of wisdom to the distracted would-be and won’t be lovers.
Playwright Stephen Karam does a nice job of committing a stage work classic to the screen. Compared with other such attempts, there are few moments where actors get pinioned by stilted speeches. Benning delivers a medium-is-the-message performance: her masterful command of every beat, parallels her character’s need to control all variables that could do damage to her ego, whether they issue from her lover, son, son’s girlfriend, and even those past flirtations that still cast a shadow. One such person comes to us as Dr. Dorn (John Tenney), a hanger-on who adroitly keeps everyone guessing or distressing.
Saoirse Ronan has a face like a weather system, where each tempest in a teapot, gust of excitement, guilty pleasure or expectation, shows up in a blush of heat across her freckled cheek, storm in her gaze, or the fixing of her lips into a knowing butterfly smile. Possessed of all those beguiling attributes, even she is brought low in her quest for immortality misconstrued as adoration. Elisabeth Moss, as Masha, gives a multi-layered performance as the embittered, drug-snorting, and black-clad companion of a school-teacher who carries a torch for Irina’s depressed son Konstantin.
There’s a winning scene in which the estate’s manager Shamrayev (Glenn Fleshler), who, along with wife Polina (Mare Cunningham) and daughter Masha (all party to the socializing and parlor games), ridicules Irina’s demand that a horse and carriage be summoned to take her to Moscow on just a few hours’ notice. He reminds her that the horses have more pressing obligations, such as transporting the rye crop that the estate grows, to market. In a most practical vernacular, he takes sharp aim at the leading lady by way of exposing the posturing and arrogance of a parasitic layer that hasn’t the most minimal grasp of what keeps its fanciful and fantasy pretense in harness.