Stars Come Out in Evening, But Minot’s Novel Fades in Dark

Running time 113 minutes
Written by Michael Cunningham and Susan Minot
Directed by Lajos Koltai
Starring Vanessa Redgrave, Meryl Streep, Claire Danes, Hugh Dancy

Red-faced, I’m feeling contrite this week. I rant against mediocrity and plead so ardently for intelligent movies about real people saying coherent things to each other that I ought to salute one when it comes along. And so I wonder why I’m not utterly besotted with Evening. It billows from clouds of intelligence, endorsed by respected writers and populated by one of the most iconic casts of artists ever assembled. I feel I should shower it with gratitude. And yes, Evening is superbly acted, well-made and something of a rarity. But it is also dull. It’s the kind of grown-up movie that is most aptly to be described as (here comes that awful word again) … worthy. But do well-intentioned movies also have to be boring?

Directed by Hungarian cinematographer Lajos Koltai, who made the Holocaust drama Fateless, Evening is based on one of those well-reviewed Susan Minot novels few people ever bother to finish. It was adapted for the screen by the overrated Michael Cunningham (The Hours), who specializes in plots overstuffed with miserable characters to whom nothing ever happens and slow as an inchworm on a sunflower stalk. O.K., it arrives with credentials. It honors the timeless loves that bind mothers and daughters, cross class barriers, and hold together the traditions of the American family. And I can’t remember an ensemble cast with so much emotional power. So why do you go away (I’m not alone) saying, “It’s admirable, but so what?” The reasons, I fear, are myriad.

First, there’s the problem of dramatizing the story of one family in two different time periods, 50 years apart. A cranky, bedridden old lady named Ann Lord (Vanessa Redgrave) lies dying of cancer, attended by two daughters named Connie and Nina, and a morphine-dispensing nurse (Eileen Atkins). They all have different last names, so the confusion begins before they’ve said hello. Connie Haverford (Natasha Richardson) is the daughter who comes with home, husband and children. Nina Mars (Toni Collette) is the neurotic one with no past, present or future life of her own, resentful of all. Drifting in and out of consciousness, the delusional mother talks about the great love of her life, somebody named Harris. Neither daughter has ever heard of him.

Before Mom can explain, we’re plunged into a summer weekend in Newport 50 years earlier, and she is Ann Grant (Claire Danes), who has arrived to be a bridesmaid in a high-society garden wedding where she finds herself ridiculously out of place and nervously beyond her status. The bride-to-be is her best friend from college, Lila Wittenborn (Mamie Gummer), whose parents (Glenn Close and Barry Bostwick) are blue bloods in an old-money mansion on fabled Ocean Drive. Lila is privileged, but not a snob. Despite his flamboyant lifestyle, neither is Buddy, her carefree, alcoholic brother (played by the spectacularly talented newcomer Hugh Dancy). Sauntering suavely through the Gatsby-like weekend festivities is a medical student from the wrong side of the tracks named Harris Arden (Patrick Wilson), the son of the Wittenborns’ old housekeeper. Lila, Buddy and Ann are all in love with Harris, but none of them got him. Cut to today, where Ms. Redgrave receives a visit from her old friend Lila, now Lila Ross (played by Meryl Streep, who looks years younger than Ms. Redgrave, although they are supposed to be the same age). In this magical scene, Ms. Streep plays the grown-up version of her real-life daughter, Ms. Gummer, and in the touching interplay between two great actresses lying on a bed like rag dolls and recalling old times, we learn a lot. Mainly, that Ann’s tragic secret is not how she slept with Harris, deceiving the others, but how she lost him—and why she has spent her life reproaching herself with guilt for the death of the charming, unhappy, sexually muddled and self-destructive Buddy. In the end, none of it matters. Watching so many people trying to reconcile the past with the present while the movie plays leap frog with continuity is an activity for masochists. A great cast is not enough to salvage a script this deadly.

How odd that a mélange of characters so appealingly played and pleasing to look at (it’s amazing how good everyone looks in white linen) has so little going on. The film is infuriatingly non-linear and the action unfolds in a series of scenes that seem frustratingly independent. They do not, in other words, flow into each other gracefully. Ms. Minot is reportedly disillusioned with the final result, but she gets a co-writing credit and was even one of the film’s producers, so sympathy has limits. Obviously, Mr. Cunningham chopped and diced the book, cutting characters and adding scenes that never occurred in print. It’s as though he wrote the entire screenplay, spliced it into sections with a pair of scissors, then rearranged them like pieces of a puzzle. The plot is so casually constructed that two entirely separate ages emerge but never converge. Except for the clothes and the convertibles with tail fins, there is no contrast between the two decades, and not much perspective on either. There is one small mention of Mr. Wilson being wounded in Korea, but nobody of any age displays a political conviction of any kind.

To be fair, there are moments of genuinely moving human exchange. The Redgrave-Streep reunion scene is especially fine, and Mr. Dancy as the doomed Buddy is a major star on the rise. The sexual confusion festering behind his scrubbed all-American beauty and nonchalance is heartbreaking, and the sharply defined brother-sister relationship between him and Ms. Gummer reminded me of the sibling affection between Katharine Hepburn and Lew Ayres in Holiday. In fact, a lot of Evening has the exclusive air of Philip Barry. A lot of people will consider Evening a must-see, and I hope you check it out for yourself. There is certainly much to recommend. But for a movie that unfolds largely under the blue skies, on sun-kissed sandy beaches and waxed walnut floors, and in the Kelly-green gardens of a summer solstice in Newport, I hate to mention the fact that it is depressingly dour, lacking in tempo and as mesmerizing as watching milk sour.

Stars Come Out in Evening, But Minot’s Novel Fades in Dark