3 movies you should see in May

Our film critic Peter Rainer recommends titles including "The Seagull" and "On Chesil Beach."

Courtesy of Robert Viglasky/Bleecker Street
Billy Howle (L.) and Saoirse Ronan star in 'On Chesil Beach.'

An adaptation of a classic Anton Chekhov play and a story about women working on a farm in World War I France are two of the best movies to have been released this month, according to Monitor film critic Peter Rainer.

'The Guardians' beautifully portrays the dynamics of a family farm in WWI France

Xavier Beauvois’s marvelous new film, “The Guardians,” which takes place in France over five years beginning in 1915, is set almost entirely on a family-owned farm. Hortense (Nathalie Baye), the family’s matriarch, has a son-in-law in the war, Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin), who is married to Hortense’s daughter, Solange (Laura Smet). Also on the front lines are Hortense’s two sons, Constant (Nicolas Giraud) and Georges (Cyril Descours). To help with the harvesting, Hortense hires a pious, dutiful 20-year-old orphan, Francine (Iris Bry).

Beauvois, who co-wrote the screenplay with Frédérique Moreau and Marie-Julie Maille based on a 1924 novel by Ernest Pérochon, presents the dailiness of farm life through its seasons with an unhurried grace. Although some of the imagery, beautifully captured by cinematographer Caroline Champetier, derives directly from the paintings of Jean-François Millet and the work of such filmmakers as Marcel Pagnol and Jean Renoir, I never felt as if he was aestheticizing the arduousness of the life put before us. Beauvois has a seismic sensitivity to the ordeals faced by enclosed communities in wartime. Grade: A- (Rated R for some violence and sexuality.)

'The Seagull' offers strong performances, Chekhovian sorrow

In most Anton Chekhov plays, none more so than “The Seagull,” everybody is in love – but with the wrong people. The latest film adaptation of “The Seagull,” directed by Michael Mayer and adapted by Stephen Karam, does a creditable job of orchestrating Chekhov’s sorrowful romantic roundelay (although the decision to open with the final scene and then flash back is an unnecessary harbinger).

The best reason to check out the film is for Saoirse Ronan’s tender, wrenching performance as the lovelorn Nina, and, especially, for Annette Bening’s fantastic turn as Irina, the grand dame of the Russian theater whose most tumultuous work occurs offstage. Bening is capable of being waspish, consoling, frail, indomitable, and woebegone – sometimes all at once. She turns “The Seagull” into a play about the hellish sacrifices one makes for art. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements, a scene of violence, drug use, and partial nudity.)

'On Chesil Beach' tells a tragic story of crossed love

Ian McEwan’s resoundingly melancholy 2007 novel “On Chesil Beach,” set mostly in 1962, has been respectfully adapted by McEwan, acting as screenwriter, and Dominic Cooke, a renowned English theater director making his movie debut.

The film, which stars Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle, opens with the lead-up to the couple's wedding night in an old Georgian hotel on a rather remote stretch of Chesil Beach in Dorset, England. From there it cuts back and forth between scenes of their courtship and the disastrous way in which that connubial night plays out.

The filmmakers erred, I think, by attaching a coda to the proceedings that sentimentalizes what we’ve just witnessed. And in general, the flashback structure is too herky-jerky for the film’s more delicate emotional modulations. But the power of the couple's final face-off is so wrenching that none of these cavils matter very much. Grade: B+ (Rated R for strong sex references, violence, and gore.)

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