Dir. Lajos Koltai. US. 2007. 117mins.
In Evening, director Lajos Koltai makes his English-language feature debut with an earnest adaptation of Susan Minot's successful novel about a dying woman looking back at the love of her youth. With a dream-team cast of actresses - Vanessa Redgrave, Clare Danes, Meryl Streep, Natascha Richardson, Toni Collette, Mamie Gummer, and Glenn Close - Evening will draw on the always-underserved women's audience in the US and the UK, and on the many readers of Minot's 1998 novel.
The novelty of seeing two mother-daughter duos playing mothers and daughters in the same film is another drawing card. But despite some fine performances, the filming of Minot's tale (scripted by Minot and Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours) never quite finds the emotional depth that it promises.
The ensemble drama is built on the memories of dying Ann Grant (Redgrave), whose two daughters stand by as she calls out a man's name, Harris, from her deathbed.
The film flashes back to 1953, when an unmarried aspiring jazz singer Ann Lord (Danes) attended the lavish Newport wedding of Lila, a WASPy college friend (Gummer), and fell in love. The bride, smitten with the same young doctor (Patrick Wilson), settles for a rich dull alternative. A drunken accident makes it a tragic night for all but Ann and Harris.
Much of the emotional territory is all too familiar. Woven in and out of the flashbacks of brief intense love are Ann's grown daughters - one married (Richardson, who is Redgrave's daughter), the other frustrated (Collette) - who learn their mother's secret and measure their lives against hers with chagrin.
In adapting the novel for the screen, Minot and Cunningham whittled the expansive discursive book into a single memory of a dying woman's great love that ultimately fails. Readers of the book may feel short-changed. The screenplay also expands the role of Buddy Winterborn (Dancy), Lila's likeable drunk of a younger brother, who falls hopelessly in love with Ann.
Koltai's direction of his cast (something of a reunion from The Hours) stresses star turns, close-ups, and tense New England family ceremonies. A cameraman by training, he (along with cinematographer Gyula Pados) mixes the palette with sunlit scenes in a spacious seaside cottage (right out of Edward Hopper), candle-lit family gatherings, and the twilight of the Cambridge bedroom where Ann enjoys her last reveries.
Koltai filmed squalid death in Auschwitz and Buchenwald in his first feature, Fateless (adapted from the Holocaust memoir by the Nobel Prize Winner Imre Kertesz). In Evening, death is prettier, with warm wood and all the right fabrics in Caroline Hanania's production design. The Newport house is right out of architectural digest.
Redgrave, horizontal throughout, is remarkably pleasant (as terminal patients go), experiencing the happy death that the audience may be praying for. Yet it's a bit too happy to be believed. As Peter O'Toole's sickly first wife in Venus, another recent role of an ageing woman looking back at love and loss, she struck a poignant balance of vulnerability and humour.
Richardson and Collette quarreling as their mother lies dying bring a welcome realism to a film that seems to be its own reverie.
Clare Danes's young Ann is bewildering as a jazz singer without edge or experience in her character or her voice, although her performance of Time After Time at the ill-fated wedding shows another dimension to the young actress.
The revelation in Evening is Mamie Gummer, as Lila, the proper poor-little-rich girl who enters fatalistically into an unhappy marriage, as many women in those days did. When she re-enters the picture 50 years later (as Meryl Streep, her own mother) the family resemblance delivers a lot more drama than novelty.
Focus Features International
Alysson C Johnson
Jan AP Kaczmarek