Distaff drama is enriched in Michael Cunningham's adaptation of Susan Minot's novel


on June 29, 2007 by Annlee Ellingson
Vanessa Redgrave. Meryl Streep. Glenn Close. Claire Danes. Toni Collette. Natasha Richardson. Based on the book by Susan Minot, Evening not only brings together an unprecedented cast of some of the greatest actresses of two generations but gives them material unusually rich in feminine themes: mothers and daughters, best friends, love and romance.

Although Evening the novel and Evening the film have key characters and plot points in common, the difference in execution between the two is so striking it's as if two artists were given a prompt—as she lay dying, a woman reflects on a romantic fling during a weekend wedding in her youth—and then dispatched to separate quarters to produce unique variations on this common theme. What screenwriter Michael Cunningham has done is focus Minot's story, not only for cinematic purposes but in service of the narrative, bringing minor characters to the fore, layering in complexity and honing the action. (Minot also receives screenwriting credit here, although it's not clear what contribution she made to the final script.) Consuming the two versions together is not unlike the multimedia experience of the cinematic adaptation of Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours , which itself was an homage to Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway —each enriches the other(s).

Cancer-stricken and bed-ridden, Ann Lord (Redgrave) drifts in and out of consciousness, confusing her grown daughters with incoherent murmurs about a man named Harris. Encouraged by her nurse to think back to a happy time, Ann remembers the weekend her best friend got married—and the stranger she fell so passionately in love with.

But that's just the simple version—there's a whole lot more simmering beneath the surface of this thematically textured tale. Bride-to-be Lila (Mamie Gummer) had cold feet that day, unsure whether she should be sensible and marry her fiancée, a decent man, or hold out for her childhood crush Harris Arden (Patrick Wilson), the son of her family's maid. Her uncertainty isn't helped by brother Buddy (Hugh Dancy), a privileged underachiever who's at once jealous of Harris, now a doctor, and yearns to be close to him by orchestrating Lila's marriage to him instead.

Meanwhile, Buddy's long-standing infatuation with Ann (Danes) is quashed when she and Harris find themselves falling for each other. That their romance doesn't last is no secret—the dying woman calls him her “first mistake” early in the film. It's the why that's the story here, and in Cunningham's version the forces at work are at once subtle and powerful.

Back in the present, Ann recognizes that her children Constance (Redgrave's real-life daughter Richardson) and Nina (Collette) threaten to repeat the same mistakes she and Lila made a half-century ago. And, when she's reunited with her girlhood friend (played opposite Redgrave by Gummer's mother, Streep), the harsh light of day juxtaposes Ann's passion with Lila's pragmatism—one woman's profound regret is dismissed as happening so long ago by another.

Both narratively and cinematically, Evening is at its heart an old-fashioned romance, with cinematographer-cum-director Lajos Koltai bathing a picture often set at twilight in rich, golden hues. Particularly in the film's dream sequences, Koltai's images exude a painterly quality. Fluid camerawork captures the energy of a house preparing for a party, and, by tuning out the score for key emotional scenes, the audience is moved by the many wonderful performances rather than manipulated by music. The sum of these parts, however, at times borders on melodrama that may try the patience of a restless audience.
Distributor: Focus
Cast: Claire Danes, Toni Collette, Vanessa Redgrave, Patrick Wilson, Hugh Dancy, Natasha Richardson, Mamie Gummer, Eileen Atkins, Meryl Streep and Glenn Close
Director: Lajos Koltai
Screenwriters: Susan Minot and Michael Cunningham
Producer: Jeffrey Sharp
Genre: Drama
Rating: PG-13 for some thematic elements, sexual material, a brief accident scene and language
Running time: 117 min.
Release date: June 29, 2007
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