It's almost certainly unfair of me to propose that Anton Chekhov's 1896 play The Seagull is one of the most uniquely un-adaptable works of theater in history, but in the immediate wake of watching the hugely blasé new film version adapted by Stephen Karam and directed by Michael Mayer, I'm inclined to be unfair. The Seagull is, like all of Chekhov's major plays and really most of the proto-modernist mode he was working in, is dominated by dense conversations rather than incidents; Chekhov's work has a tendency to suffer in translation; and The Seagull in particular spends much of its time being about theatre, modeling a new form of representation that was nothing like the popular stage forms when Chekhov wrote it (it is the earliest of the author's four major plays). In principle, I suppose that some satisfying cinematic version of this play could be made, but in practice, I don't know what in heaven's name it would look like.

I know that it wouldn't look like this, though. The Seagull is one of the most utterly milquetoast "prestige" films in recent memory: it feels in many of the particulars of its production that it could have been made sometime in the 1990s' literary prestige picture fad, but not as one of the movies that anybody remembers with fondness. Mayer's direction lists heavily towards the doggedly literal (and this in adapting a play perhaps most important for how much of its action it leaves offstage), and he smothers a cast that, on paper, looks like it should be absolutely stellar: Annette Bening is Irina Arkadina, an over-the-hill actress currently keeping as lover the bestselling writer Boris Trigorin, played by Corey Stoll. She's making her annual trip to her old family farm in the country outside Moscow, where her aging brother Pjotr Nikolayevich Sorin (Brian Dennehy) is spending his final years with bitter humor. Irina's son Konstantin (Billy Howle) lives on the farm with his uncle, devoting his time to the creation of bold new theatrical forms; he views Trigorin with a combination of envy and absolute disgust, and this gets worse when his girlfriend Nina Zarechnaya (Saoirse Ronan) forms a starstruck crush on Trigorin.

However it looks on paper, it's a largely dispiriting cast in practice. The thing about Chekhov is that he's first and foremost important for his extreme naturalism: his characters are meant to be normal, everyday people. But now that he's been caked in a thick layer of Classic Literature, there's an ever-present temptation to indulge in the kind of arch theatrical line readings and posing that's exactly what The Seagull is meant to banish. A sufficiently motivated director could surely push his actors out of that indulgence, but Mayer's not that director, and the results aren't pretty. This is, for starters, exactly the most dangerous kind of role to hand to Bening, a gifted actor whose weak points - a tendency towards brittle, overly-declamatory line readings and a smug, detached chilliness - are exactly what you wouldn't want to happen in this role, and I'm sorry to say that Bening absolutely does live down to my fears. There are some outstanding grace notes in her performance: any time there's an opportunity to silently indicate Arkadina's vanity, jealousy of the young Nina, and desperate desire to be the center of attention, Bening and Mayer and especially editor Annette Davey take advantage of it, so there are a lot of sly glances and moments where Bening "turns on" Arkadina's stage presence. But those are not so common, and when she needs to be actually emotive, it's just too forced. Still, it's better than Ronan's utterly lost performance, all pixieish enthusiasm turned up to something squeaky and annoying. Howle simply disappears: he plays Konstantin in the most generic way as a sullen Young Artiste, and there's not one moment with any of his co-stars that he pulls focus from them. The only performance among that's working is Stoll's, who plays Trigorin with a certain amused alarm at the family drama in front of him. It's an approach that makes him entirely an observer, not a psychological actor in his own right, but it's at least effective.

Really, though, the only performance that I found myself happy to have watched was Elisabeth Moss in the small role of Masha, daughter of the farm's caretaker; she is the only cast member (along with Dennehy, maybe) who gets what "naturalism" means, and she generally feels like she's saying lines, not reciting them. She's definitely the only cast member to have taken to heart the old cliché that the right way to play Chekhov is as comedy, and her mordant, self-aware cynicism is easily the best thing in the entire movie.

Setting aside the performances, though - setting aside that little tiny part of a Chekhov adaptation - and we're still stuck with the utterly terrible way that Karam and Mayer have elected to open up the play. The film opens with a stupidly bold gesture, placing the beginning of Act IV as a little tease and then flashing back three years to the beginning of Act I (when the action rolls back to Act IV, it is repeated in its entirety, though not always from the same  POV). This is a trite screenwriting trick that lost its appeal many years ago; to see it forced atop the carefully-managed structure of a Chekhov play is purely ugly, and does nothing but the sluggish film feel even more bloated and slow (not a bad trick for something that runs a total of 98 minutes). Later, Karam endeavors to cut the action into "scenes", either by chopping long dialogue sequences into little chunks, or by hopping between locations in the middle of conversations; neither of these work very well, and the former approach in particular has the dreadful effect of killing the flow of dialogue and the thoughts of the characters.

Basically, we never get any feeling of what's going on in the characters' heads, either because the pacing and structure leave them all feeling a bit dazed and lost, or because the performers tend to remain locked into the most superficial treatment of most of their lines. This is the worst kind of tepid middlebrow mediocrity, and the fact that it was shot in 2015 and only released in 2018, despite having an apparent surefire awards-baiting role for Bening, means exactly what it sounds like it means: this is boring, forgettable sludge, much closer to the worst possible version of itself than the best.