From a novel by chronicler of WASP-angst Susan Minot, Hungarian director Lajos Koltai's Evening skips hither and yon to tell the story of generations of women dealing with those melodramatic constants of love and loss.
Lying on her deathbed in her well-appointed Rhode Island home, the elderly Ann (Vanessa Redgrave) confounds her adult daughters, Nina (Toni Collette) and Constance (Natasha Richardson), with a rosebud-type pronouncement.
"Harris," Ann whispers, recalling a long-ago love who Nina takes a special interest in unearthing from her mother's calcified memory. Flashbacks to the various bees in the bonnets of an upper-crust Yankee clan during the convention-bound 1950s stake out the romantic primordial goo that calls dying Ann back to the past.
While her own daughters – boho Nina and poshly content wife and mother Constance – bicker over who has disappointed Mom more, Evening flashes back to that fateful weekend when Ann met the man, Harris, who would so bewitch her brain 50 years later.
A Greenwich Village nightclub chanteuse, young Ann (played by Claire Danes) arrives at the Newport, R.I., home of college roommate Lila (Mamie Gummer) and enters a world of blue-blood privilege.
In a sparkling white mansion perched high above the ocean chipper, sweetly pretty bridesmaids and aristocratic parents (Glenn Close, Barry Bostwick) prepare for Lila's wedding. About to be married to a man she may not love, Lila still harbors feelings for the not-our-kind-dear housekeeper's son, Harris (Patrick Wilson), whose station in life has risen to country doctor.
Ann, however, has no such class reservations about falling for Harris. But she finds herself caught in an ill-defined love triangle between Harris and Lila's lovesick younger brother, Buddy (Hugh Dancy), who has harbored a crush on Ann – and perhaps Harris, too – for years.
Bouncing like a ping-pong ball back and forth between past and present and various generations, Evening examines that perennial melodramatic theme of female choice between freedom and motherhood, personal fulfillment and regret. Guess which everyone chooses?
In an effort to intensify the connections between past and present and life's waxing and waning, Evening boasts a pair of acting mothers and daughters. Arriving at Ann's bedside, the now fully formed and matronly Lila is played by Mamie Gummer's own mama, Meryl Streep. Mother-daughter themes are similarly echoed in the casting choice of real-life mother and daughter Vanessa Redgrave and Natasha Richardson to play onscreen mother and child.
Despite a phalanx of such powerhouse thesp-chicks, this is all tepid, uninvolving stuff. A disappointingly thin, superficial script by Minot and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Cunningham (The Hours) only chops the onion-peel layers of fiction into a gooey muddle.
Though memorably tortured as the burning love interest in last year's Little Children, Wilson hardly seems distraction enough to get all of Evening's female – and male – panties in a twist. Instead of a great passion that flamed out, Harris and Ann's affair has nary a spark of sexual chemistry to begin with, and Ann's deathbed fretting over what could have been seems much ado about nothing.
Evening may be scrupulously tasteful, but its tastefulness also makes the film as bland as buttered toast. Unremarkable and safe, even the cast of high-test actresses give Evening an aura of gravity its story and direction never merit. Director Koltai, who directed the remarkable child's eye view of the Holocaust, 2005's Fateless, has enjoyed a long career as a cinematographer, though his appreciation of the subtleties of WASP repression perhaps exhibits a cultural divide. (Interesting that it didn't keep Ang Lee from nailing suburban angst in The Ice Storm).
The aura of good taste and Merchant-Ivory-pretty surroundings in Evening would have benefited greatly from a more penetrating eye beneath the bed skirt of convention and a greater sense of doom at the ways ritual and culture limit women's freedom.