This week Saoirse Ronan returns to the big screen as Nina in the Chekhov classic The Seagull. It's a career best performance from the Irish actress, who is radiant onscreen as the doomed young Russian heroine.
Saoirse Ronan is a three time Oscar Nominee at only 24, a Hollywood A-Lister who's as at home in Carlow as she is in Beverley Hills, and she's also that rare thing, a serious artist who remembers not to take herself too seriously.
If she's notably well adjusted for a celebrity it's mostly thanks to her mum and dad Monica and Paul Ronan, who have themselves experienced many of the highs and lows of an artistic life (as well as the Irish immigrant one) and who have subsequently grounded their daughter through their own experience.
But all the solid Irish background in the world is no substitute for artistic talent and in her latest role as Nina in the big screen adaptation of the Anton Chekhov classic The Seagull (opening Friday, May 11) Ronan reminds us of it, playing the beautiful but doomed young heroine Nina, a girl who falls too hard and too fast for the wrong man with fateful consequences.
Director Michel Mayer's brilliantly paced and intimate portrait is exceptional. In his hands The Seagull unfolds like a waking dream but it also feels as raw and real as any first love. When Ronan first appears onscreen she is radiant with the rich promise of her own youth, and seemingly lit from within by it.
As the 19 year old Nina, Ronan's a thoughtful and observant young woman locked in a passionate but increasingly fraught relationship with the equally young writer Konstantin Treplyov (played by nervy English newcomer Billy Howle) who is a principled but wholly inexperienced young man who can see though everything in life but his own romantic desires.
Nina wants to be an actress in the escapist way that many young people do, to win some public acclaim on the stage and leave behind the fractured family life that has marked her.But when acting for the first time in her young lover Konstantin's debut play she is constantly interrupted by the scornful comments of his famous actress mother Irina (Annette Bening) who finds his writing pretentious and incomprehensible.
Irina is feted throughout Russia for her acting skill and her laughable narcissism simply won't allow her to share the spotlight, even with her own child, who she mercilessly lampoons until he calls off his play in protest.
Irina's maternal instincts are no match for her theatrical ones we discover and Konstantin is especially humiliated to see that she is scoffing at him in the company of her much longer lover (the far more successful writer Boris Trigorin, played by Corey Stoll).
If all of this sounds pretty melodramatic, well the truth is it is. But it also frequently cruelly funny. Chekhov's character's openly say what most people only dream of and half the entertainment comes from witnessing these often very unpleasant people be thoroughly and unapologetically themselves.
The Seagull is Russian in its blunt directness then, but it's artistry lies in symbolism and the awareness that these are fallible people in an imperfect world who could be us and everyone we know. Forever dreaming of escape from the suffocating details of their lives they're never more funny or relatable than when they're lamenting just how impossible their dreams turn out to be.
Broadway giant Brian Dennehy is ideally cast as Sorin, Irina's cantankerous and miserable older brother, who lives on her dime and finds his country life increasingly insufferable. Dennehy is the symbol of everything we should fear, he's faithless, loveless, filled with regret and unhappiness, he's the human cost of a long life that never once got close to the things it dreamed of. So he's a warning and a reminder of where most of this play and the characters are heading.
After the failure of Konstantin's play Nina sees her lover in a new and unflattering light, he suddenly strikes her as half baked and immature. Instead she immediately turns her attention to the much older and more celebrated Trigorin who personifies everything that seems adult and glamorous to her.
Stoll is all too believable as the cynical sensualist, who turns everyone he looks at into the subject of a story, with no concern about the effect this might have. In Nina he sees an all too willing victim, one who is literally asking to be used.
Ronan never lets us get ahead of her character. She plays her naivete but also her desperation. To her Trigorin represents perhaps the only chance she'll ever have (now that her family have cut her off financially) of making an escape to the artistic life she dreams of.
Ronan's character thinks she is in control of her destiny but the truth is she has very little room to maneuver. Trigorin understands this fact and manipulates her ruthlessly. What develops is a love triangle between Bening's Irina, Ronan's Nina and the unscrupulous cad.
It's heartbreaking to watch a spirit as pure as Nina's get eaten alive by someone as unprincipled as Trigorin, and director Mayer doesn't make it easy for us. He focuses carefully on Ronan's youth, beauty and innocence to make you understand just how much violence is being done to her.
After she makes the unwise decision to follow her new would-be lover to Moscow we hear that her life has been, entirely predictably, turned upside down. At first Trigorin is infatuated with his young lover but soon he tires of her demands. Then we hear that her stage work has been lampooned, pulling another rung from underneath her. Finally we learn that she has been reduced to working for a theatrical touring company, where she travels by rail in third class with her social inferiors.
Nina is a complex and troubled character, in other words, and her journey from innocence to bitter experience represents a career high for Ronan, who finds the humanity in her character and makes you feel her desolation.
Despite his cruel mistreatment Nina still tragically loves the man who has abandoned her. When she's briefly reunited with the still doting Konstantin he finds that he cannot rekindle the flame she once carried for him, she can't even save herself, so she takes off into the night alone, taking her first steps toward an uncertain and probably lonely future.
In this version of The Seagull, the most lucid and economical version I have ever seen, it's the two women – Ronan and Bening – who makes the greatest impression as two sides of a life experience that compromise and inconsideration have marked where they have not deformed.
As Nina, Ronan gives the most vulnerable and unforgettable performance she has brought to the screen to date, finding the modernity in the classic drama by going straight to the play and her character's beating heart.
The Seagull works its magic on you quietly, until by the end it leaves you gasping at the sheer poetry of what happens. It looks like a dream but its edges cut deep.