Lights Out

sarris evening1h Lights OutEvening
Running time 126 minutes
Written by Michael Cunningham and Susan Minot
Directed by Lajos Koltai
Starring Vanessa Redgrave, Meryl Streep, Claire Danes, Natasha Richardson

Lajos Koltai’s Evening, from a screenplay by Susan Minot and Michael Cunningham, based on the novel by Ms. Minot, seems to have created a rift between the billed co-screenwriters, according to Celia McGee’s fascinating interview with Ms. Minot in the New York Times Sunday Arts and Leisure section. It seems that the novelist had written several drafts of a screenplay for her novel, culminating in a reading by Chloë Sevigny as Ann, which satisfied neither the novelist, nor the producer Jeff Sharp. The project was then turned over to Michael Cunningham, a novelist and screenwriter Ms. Minot reportedly respected. Inevitably, many changes were made to the original story, and some of these changes were too extreme for Ms. Minot.

Ms. McGee describes the transformation as such: “a hallmark Susan Minot story—girl meets slightly unacceptable boy, girl loves boy, girl has to renounce boy—emerged as an Eisenhower-era Michael Cunningham triangulation of girl loves boy, other boy loves girl and boy, tragedy ensues.”

Having read the novel, I can see where disagreements would arise between the two writers. Mr. Cunningham is quoted as saying, “I find myself drawn to threesomes,” to explain why he introduced a bisexual wisp of a whisper to a story that already had a heterosexual threesome, which he discarded.

The central character in question is 25-year-old Ann Grant, who is on her way to a wedding in North Haven Island off the coast of Maine, a location changed in the movie by Mr. Cunningham to Newport, R.I., a haven more for the have-mores than the haves of North Haven. O.K. I can understand wanting to sharpen class differences for dramatic effect. This may be why Ann and her one-night-stand lover have been portrayed more as outsiders to the fancy festivities in the movie than they were in the book. In both versions, however, as 65-year-old Ann Lord lay dying of cancer 40 years later, all she wanted to remember was that fateful wedding day and night during which she met, loved and lost the one great love of her life to a woman, Maria, who, only in the book, arrived late to the wedding to reclaim her fiancé.

Vanessa Redgrave plays the dying Ann Lord with her usual majestic command, and Claire Danes, with considerably less command, is the young and impressionable Ann Grant. Frankly, I would have preferred Ms. Sevigny as the young Ann to Ms. Danes, which is only one of the problems I had with the movie. Still, the novel is too dense, too multilayered, too overpopulated to make a satisfactory film that is also faithful to the book.

Nonetheless, the movie exchanges between Ann Grant and Harris Arden (Patrick Wilson) on their one night of sexual and emotional communion loses much of the complexity and pathos of the exchanges in the book simply because in the movie the painful subject of Harris’ prior relationship with Maria is never allowed to come up. Even so, 40 years is a long time for a memory to last in either book time or movie time. There is a good double-edged scene between Ms. Redgrave’s Ann Lord and Constance, her daughter, on-screen and off, in the form of Natasha Richardson. There is also an excellent if foreshortened reunion scene between Ms. Redgrave’s Ann and the similarly elderly former bride, Lila, (Meryl Streep now, and daughter Mamie Gummer then), for whom Ann Grant was a maid of honor 40 years before.

For the rest, it is a case of too much and not enough. Toni Collette as Ann Lord’s daughter, Margie, teams up effectively with Ms. Richardson’s Constance to keep the present adequately represented amid all the tumult of the past. It is not Hugh Dancy’s fault that his hysterically expanded part of Buddy, a minor if ill-fated character in the book, is made to chew up all the scenery on his way to his doom. By contrast, Patrick Wilson’s Harris Arden is much too low-key to be remembered for 40 years after one night of love. Glenn Close is forced to swivel too quickly from the emotional extremes of pride as the mother of the bride, Lila, and sobbing sorrow over the sudden death of Lila’s brother, Buddy. For her part, the estimable Eileen Atkins must nimbly shift between fact and fantasy as Ann Lord’s very busy nurse. All right, what a cast! But dare I say it? Ms. Minot’s novel is too lavishly literary, though genuinely affecting, for a movie.