As the credits listing shows, “Evening” boasts a remarkable cast. But even more important is the fact that it was adapted from her own best-seller by Susan Minot, in collaboration with another novelist, Michael Cunningham (“The Hours”). So it may come as little surprise that while it showcases some fine performers, it unfortunately has a stiflingly literary tone.
It’s a women’s picture about mothers and daughters, divided into two chronologically separate but interconnected acts between which it switches repeatedly. One is set in the present, where dying matron Ann Lord (Vanessa Redgrave) is being attended by her two bickering daughters, Constance (Natasha Richardson) and Nina (Toni Collette)—the former a happily-married woman with kids and the latter a frustrated dancer with a nice but rather distracted musician boyfriend (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and, as it turns out, a secret—as well as a night nurse (Eileen Atkins) with bouts of wisdom to impart.
Ann’s fevered memory flashes back fifty years or so, where we see her younger self (Claire Danes), a would-be singer, arrive at the genteelly plush Newport coastal retreat of the much tonier Wittenborn clan (snooty mother Glenn Close and snootier father Barry Bostwick), where she’s to serve as maid of honor at the wedding of her best college friend Lila (Mamie Gummer). Lila’s younger brother Buddy (Hugh Dancy), an alcohol-loving dandy also besotted with Ann (whom he knew at college, too), urges her convince his sister not to marry the intended groom, because he knows she’s really in love with Dr. Harris Arden (Patrick Wilson), their erstwhile housekeeper’s son who was their closest childhood pal. What quickly develops, however, is an immediate attraction between Ann and Harris, which sends Buddy into a drunken emotional tailspin during the pre-nuptial party. And since the local swells have a strange habit of jumping off a nearby cliff into the sea after hoisting too many, potential tragedy looms.
The story reaches full circle in the final act, with the aging Lila (Meryl Streep) coming to visit her old friend Ann for one last time.
There’s plenty of high-toned dramatics in “Evening,” and suggestions of profound insight about how the difficulties faced by women are passed down to their daughters and females face problems of gender in every generation. And it’s certainly intriguing to see actual mother-daughter actresses paired off in the work of Redgrave and Richardson on the one hand, and Streep and Gummer on the other.
But despite the notable writers, the fine actors, sensitive (if sometimes precious) direction from Lajos Koltai, a lovely look (with luminous widescreen cinematography by Gyula Pados that accentuates the skillful work of production designer Caroline Hanania, art director Jordan Jacobs, set decorator Catherine Davis and costume designers Ann Roth and Michelle Matland) and editing by Allyson C. Johnson that keeps the transitions clear, one can constantly hear the dramatic gears shifting and grinding away throughout the picture. Everything seems forced and calculated in a way that mightn’t be so obvious on the page but is all too evident on the screen. The foreshadowing of the present generation’s problems in the past (or, if you prefer, the determinative effect of the past on the present) and the contrast between high society and the lesser orders are themes that a subtle author might be able to invigorate in print, but on screen they tend to become heavy and tired unless very delicately handled. It’s also difficult to pull off semi-magical sequences in which the dying Ann has visions of light and shade (the nurse transformed into some vision of peace, a bedroom filling with glistening butterflies). So while one can luxuriate in the performances of Redgrave, Danes, Gummer, Streep and Close (though less so in those of Richardson and Collette, who are stuck with far weaker material), the story fails to carry the emotional resonance it’s meant to do. It has the quaint, arch feel of a novel that might have been written in the fifties and filmed in that decade.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the character of Buddy, who’s in many ways the catalyst of the piece. None of the male characters are written or played particularly well here—Arden’s a handsome cipher, embodied so blandly by Wilson that his implied super-attractiveness is inexplicable, and Bostwick’s Mr. Wittenborn is just a stuffy aristocrat. But Buddy’s a caricature of the callow, doomed young swain. A would-be writer who spouts first lines from famous books, he stumbles around constantly taking swigs from omnipresent bottles but always manages to get through his highly theatrical speeches despite his inebriation. Buddy is like a stock character from a bad imitation of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, a Gatsby gone to seed who exists not as a credible human being but as a literary device significant only in terms of the effect his fate will have on others. It’s a hopeless part, and so it’s predictable that Darcy plays it poorly. But his failure isn’t so much his fault as that of the creakily pretentious writing that infects the entire film.
“Evening” may want to shed some light on the realities of human existence from the female perspective, but its pseudo-literary affectations insure that the illumination it offers is awfully dim.