Vanessa Redgrave as Ann Grant Lord
Claire Danes as Young Ann
Toni Collette as Nina
Patrick Wilson as Harris Arden
Hugh Dancy as Buddy Wittenborn
Natasha Richardson as Constance Lord
Mamie Gummer as Young Lila Wittenborn
Eileen Atkins as Mrs. Brown
Meryl Streep as Lila Wittenborn
Glenn Close as Mrs. Wittenborn
Timothy Kiefer as Carl Ross
Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Luc
Directed by Lajos Koltai
This painfully slow examination of two periods in a woman's life is a mostly dull and substandard effort at drama that greatly wastes the talent involved with it.
As she lays on her death bed, Ann Grant Lord (Vanessa Redgrave/Claire Danes) reminisces back to the '50s wedding of her friend Lila (Mamie Gummer), and how their mutual love for the rugged boatsman Harris (Patrick Wilson) may have led to the death of Lila's brother Buddy (Hugh Dancy), who had a crush on Ann. In present day, Ann's daughters Nina and Connie (Toni Collette, Natasha Richardson) are having trouble coming to terms with their mother dying as they each face their own personal issues.
I love serious dramas as much as the next person, and the pedigree for this film based on Susan Minot's novel seems like a sure-fire winner between the multi-generational cast of dramatic actors to Minot's screenwriting partner Michael Cunningham ("The Hours") and even Hungarian cinematographer-turned-director Lajos Koltai has shown promise with the visual flair of his previous film, the Hungarian Holocaust drama "Fateless." So where did "Evening" go so wrong taking all of that into consideration?
It doesn't help that less than ten minutes into the movie, Vanessa Redgrave is giving away two main plot points as she rambles on her death bed, basically leaving you waiting over the next hour to see what she's talking about while fully knowing what eventually is going to happen. We quickly flashback to the '50s when Ann was the maid of honor at her best friend Lila's wedding, which prompts a gathering of the wealthy and well-to-do at a New England beach house. Lila, played by stage actress Mamie Gummer in a standout performance, is suitably nervous, but it doesn't help that she's still in love with Patrick Wilson's Harris Arden, the handsome older son of their housekeeper who has many admirers, as does Ann, who's apparently the crush of Lila's younger brother and her school chum Buddy, played by Hugh Dancy.
It's probably not too big a leap to realize that the film's look at yesteryear which features younger and better-looking actors is far more appealing than the scenes of the older Ann rambling in her deathbed, but it goes back and forth so much, that you can never truly adjust to either time period or story. Way too many subplots are thrown into the present day to make Ann's daughters more important to the story, building the conflict between them as Toni Collette, the miserable and less successful daughter, has become pregnant by her boyfriend Luc. Otherwise, we spent a lot of time watching Ann in a state of delirium remembering her past, while having odd esoteric visions like one of a Good Fairly like "Night Nurse" who visits her in one scene. (Don't ask me what it means. I didn't write this novel/movie.)
Meanwhile back in the '50s, Ann and Harris predictably hook up, much to the aggravation of Lila, who's still in love with him, and Ann's various suitors. We already know that Buddy is going to die, because it was given away at the very beginning, but we're then teased incessantly with why and how this might happen and really, there's nothing to keep one interesting up until the reveal. At least there's a great scene between Dancy and Danes that anyone who has ever had to reveal their love to a close friend can relate to.
For the most part, it's a good cast giving admirable enough performances, but none of them are really doing anything that's a departure from previous roles. As expected, there's a great deal of talking--and frankly, that dialogue is not particularly special--but boy, these actresses do love their long pregnant pauses that makes you want to shake them up in hopes they'll say something. You also have to admire Glen Close's scenery-chewing outburst after finding out about Buddy's death, which is pretty much the only reason she was cast in such a throwaway role which would normally have gone to a lesser-known actress.
The movie also tries to deal a bit with Ann's career as a jazz singer in the years after having sung at Lila's wedding. It offers a bit more background about the character sure, but it's also completely unnecessary to the story. You're left waiting for nearly an hour and a half before Meryl Streep finally turns up as the older Lila and lays in bed talking with the dying Ann in an awkward sequence that doesn't work nearly as well as it must have seemed on the day it was shot. It's a grueling scene that tries and fails to offer any sort of resolution, as is a completely useless and gratuitous scene showing a chance meeting between Anna and Harris years after their beach house fling. It's such an awkward and obvious scene of them running into each other on a rainy day in New York that's shoehorned in to try to get a bit more time with Harris.
Lajos Koltai certainly has a great eye for a beautiful shot, something that the beachside setting in the flashbacks fully takes advantage of, but he has a lot to learn about structure and pacing, which was part of the problem with "Fateless." Having not read the novel, I can't comment on how faithful it is, but it's fairly apparent that Minot and Cunningham were far too in love with the source material, because otherwise, they may have realized that it doesn't exactly translate into an interesting movie. Really, this movie should have used the Vanessa Redgrave scenes as a framing device at the beginning and end, cut out all the subplots involving her daughters, and then made the main body of the movie be the story at the beach house, because that really is the strongest aspect of the film.
The Bottom Line:
Certainly there's a lot of drama to be had in "Evening"--maybe even too much drama if that's possible--and yet, the movie fails to be very effective in terms of emotion, partially due to the constant jumps back and forth between time periods. It's aggravating to know how much better this would have worked as a stageplay; fans of the book might want to wait for that to happen because sitting through it as a movie is tantamount to being in your own deathbed awaiting the end.