The most interesting part of “Evening” happened when the film was cast. The younger version of Meryl Streep’s character is played by Streep’s real-life daughter, Mamie Gummer, while Natasha Richardson plays daughter to her real-life mother, Vanessa Redgrave. Nifty!
The movie itself, meh. Despite being lovely to look at and smoothed and polished around all the edges — the very picture of made-to-order chick-flick precision, down to the last hankie — it’s not the compelling emotional treatise it wants to be. It has the form of such a movie, and occasionally some of the function, but never in great enough quantities.
It does not want for good performances or beautiful locations, though. Directed by Hungarian cinematographer Lajos Koltai, it’s set mostly on a summer weekend in the late 1950s on the Massachusetts coast, home to wealthy New Englanders and their brandy-sipping guests. Young Ann (Claire Danes) is the maid of honor at the wedding of her college friend, Lila (Mamie Gummer), who is marrying some parent-approved doofus from the appropriate social class. Lila’s alcoholic embarrassment of a brother, a would-be writer named Buddy (Hugh Dancy), is there to keep Ann company, and so is Harris (Patrick Wilson), a longtime friend of Lila’s and Buddy’s who’s rugged and seafaring and would be a perfect match for Lila, were it not for the fact that he’s the son of their housekeeper. So Lila’s marrying some rich tool, and maybe Ann can flirt with Harris over the weekend.
All of this is seen in flashbacks. In the present, elderly Ann (Vanessa Redgrave) lies in what seems destined to be her deathbed, drifting in and out of lucidity. She’s cared for by her grown-up daughters, married-with-kids Connie (Natasha Richardson) and single-and-directionless Nina (Toni Collette), who are surprised to hear their mother mention people they’ve never heard of before. Buddy? Harris? Are these real people, or is Mom hallucinating as her mind slowly deteriorates?
The story, adapted by Susan Minot and Michael Cunningham from Minot’s novel, is best when it stays in the past. The modern-day threads (Nina is non-committal to her boyfriend; she and Connie clash; etc.) do little to enrich the film’s texture, and let’s be honest: stories in the present don’t have nearly the same romantic sheen that tales from a bygone era do.
This particular bygone-era tale feels “Great Gatsby”-ish in its nostalgia and tragedy, although (and this may go without saying) it’s considerably less substantive than that or any other piece of real literature. But all of the film’s many women turn in solid performances, particularly the bed-ridden Redgrave, who does more with just her face than most people do with their entire bodies. Glenn Close is notable as Lila’s patrician mother, in a performance that is sabotaged by one unfortunate scene of hysterical melodrama.
The younger set are all fine, too, aided by Claire Danes’ soulfulness, Hugh Dancy’s whisky-soaked tragicomedy, and Patrick Wilson’s stalwartness. There’s a bittersweetness to the film that serves it well. Certain elements of the Ann-Harris-Buddy story resonate with real truth and beauty.
It’s all a little too factory-made, though. It’s the kind of female-centric syrup that isn’t conceived creatively so much as it’s calculated mathematically. But the sheer talent of the assembled cast almost ensures something good will come of it, and for a certain audience, “Evening” may be good enough.
B- (1 hr., 57 min.; )