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As 'Evening' fades An all-star cast manages to put an aristocratic aura on the sunset hours of a dying woman

Look at that cast. Just look at it.

Nor is that all. The daughters of its two greatest names -- Natasha Richardson, daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and Mamie Gummer, daughter of Meryl Streep -- are in it, too. I just don't know that you could assemble a more impressive female cast in our filmmaking era.

Which makes "Evening" as criminal a waste of talent as you will ever find at the movies. This pictorially resplendent adaptation of Susan Minot's bestseller is a chick flick endurance contest for its first 90 minutes (it goes without saying, I'd hope, that there are "guy movie" endurance contests equally arduous -- many of which star Nicolas Cage).

When Meryl Streep finally -- FINALLY -- shows up to play the aged old friend of Vanessa Redgrave, who plays a woman on her deathbed, the two of them have a scene together that may well be something of a movie classic.

So, too, for those who collect movie scenes where life and art overlap, there is a remarkable scene with Redgrave's daughter Richardson playing her movie daughter and telling her unconscious mother how she eventually came to understand her passion for her career (cabaret singing, in the movie) over her family. When it comes to acting nobility doing family psychodrama onscreen for us, Redgrave and her older daughter aren't quite in the Fonda "On Golden Pond" class but it's not as if the movie isn't trying.

All that it really tries until its final 20 minutes is your patience. It is Exhibit A of why no one should ever let two ultra-sensitive writers -- in this case Minot and Michael Cunningham, who co-wrote the script -- be movie producers. You cannot imagine how much this thing would have been improved if its producer had been some sleazy buzzard, drenched in cigar juice, who'd been a '30s-style gasbag and former furrier who truly loved movies.

This script is literary in the very worst way. You may not really appreciate how very good these actors are until you hear them keep this movie afloat -- barely -- with dialogue that should never have left the page (watch, for instance, as Toni Collette uses the word "metamorphose" in a putatively intimate conversation and gets away with it. THAT, so help me, is an actress.)

Minot's co-writer and co-producer is Michael Cunningham of "The Hours" fame. That's clearly the kind of movie they were trying to steer this Olympian cast through.

The film gently waves back and forth in time between a high society wedding in 1954 (according to the novel) and the present day when Vanessa Redgrave is dying, while her daughters, played by Richardson and Collette, are in a melancholy deathwatch, trying to find time to get everything said when both time and their mother's mental clarity are in decidedly short supply.

While the woman fades to black in her deathbed, she remembers that wedding so long ago, when she had an idyll with the great love of her life that turned out, in its consequences, to be more bitter than she'd ever have guessed.

Redgrave's younger self is played by Claire Danes, as a nightclub singer of ambiguous ability (my vote is no, if you must know, as much as I've always loved Claire Danes). She's a faithful maid of honor at her wealthy best friend's wedding. With an advanced case of the prenuptial jitters, the prospective bride is momentarily paralyzed by the fact that she's really in love with the son of one of the family's loyal retainers (who has grown up to be a dashing doctor).

Danes the bridesmaid is in love with him, too. So, it seems, is the bride's drunken and painfully closeted brother, played ridiculously with nothing that resembles libido by Hugh Dancy.

The great technicolor specialist in this sort of overwrought melodrama, Douglas Sirk, might have made a movie of this, back in the era of Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone. So too might Stephen Daldry in our era, the man who directed "The Hours."

Lajos Koltai makes the whole thing a pictorially voluptuous and barely endurable paean to Rhode Island seascapes until Streep shows up to give the whole soap opera some dignity.

Some portentous lines from the script that might indicate what you're dealing with:

(Wise black musician to singer) "Mistakes are beautiful, baby. Mistakes are part of the fun."

(Boyfriend to Toni Collette) "I can't do this much longer."

(Dying Vanessa Redgrave) "What if you found out you were made of wrongness?"

(Night nurse to dying woman) "What do you see?" Answer: "Waste, failure."

Despite the historic cast, my sentiments exactly.




Review: Two stars (out of four)
Vanessa Redgrave, Meryl Streep, Claire Danes, Toni Collette and Glenn Close in Lajos Koltai's adaptation of Susan Minot's bestseller about a dying woman remembering her youth 40 years ago. Rated PG-13, opening Friday in area theaters.

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