A woman’s deathbed reveries provide a poignant but rather obvious counterpoint to her daughters’ present-day emotional concerns in “Evening.” As co-scripted by Michael Cunningham (“The Hours”), Susan Minot’s adaptation of her own artfully fragmented novel arrives onscreen as another highly polished, star-studded meditation on mortality, regret and the unique drag of being a woman in any generation. Strong literary pedigree and powerhouse cast will appeal to sophisticated auds, and Focus Features’ mid-summer launch reps a classic bit of counter-programming, but it remains to be seen if pic will get the year-end kudos and critical attention needed for sustained arthouse biz.
After making his directing debut in 2005 with the strikingly beautiful Holocaust drama “Fateless,” Hungarian lenser-turned-helmer Lajos Koltai has sailed into decidedly tonier prestige-pic waters with his second feature — adapted and exec produced by literary heavyweights Minot and Cunningham, and starring actresses such as Vanessa Redgrave, Glenn Close, Eileen Atkins and Meryl Streep, just for starters.
Redgrave plays aging Ann Lord, whose daughters Constance (Natasha Richardson) and Nina (Toni Collette) have gathered at her bedside in her final moments. When Ann mutters a cryptic sentence amid her feverish ramblings (“Harris and I killed Buddy”), pic takes a page from “The Bridges of Madison County,” flashing back to a key moment in the 1950s — as young Ann Grant (Claire Danes), an aspiring singer from New York, arrives on the coast of Rhode Island for the wedding of her friend Lila Wittenborn (Mamie Gummer).
While at the Wittenborns’ summer cottage, Ann is entranced by the mild-mannered, powerfully attractive Dr. Harris Arden (Patrick Wilson). Latter exerts a similar pull on his longtime chums Lila — lovely, insecure and about to marry a decent man she doesn’t love — and Lila’s rascally brother Buddy (Hugh Dancy), an aspiring novelist who swings from jovial high spirits to depressive bouts of drunkenness.
As Ann supports Lila through her premarital jitters and explores her attraction to Harris, and Buddy is increasingly racked by boozy fits of self-loathing, the catalysts are in place for a tragedy that becomes the defining moment of Ann’s life. Her innocence shattered, she falls into a series of ill-considered (and sparsely depicted) marriages and has two girls, while her singing career flounders.
To freight a single evening with such dramatic significance will rightly smack some viewers as a tad reductive. The more immediate problem with this ambitious, elliptical film is Koltai and editor Allyson C. Johnson’s difficulty in establishing a narrative rhythm, as the back-and-forth shifts in time that seemed delicately free-associative on the page are rendered with considerably less grace onscreen. In ways reminiscent of Stephen Daldry’s film of “The Hours,” the telling connections between past and present feel calculated rather than authentically illuminating (though even with a key character’s encroaching demise, “Evening” is overall a less lugubrious affair).
Pic intends to say something meaningful about the emotional legacy mothers bequeath to their daughters, most directly in the scenes between Constance, a happily married mother, and Nina, a restless, somewhat embittered single woman whose failed dancing career reflects her mother’s own lost dreams. Though well-played by Richardson and especially Collette, the characters and their sisterly spats feel all too conveniently shaped to reinforce the film’s multigenerational themes.
Still, individual moments are not without their felicitous touches — mainly due to the cast, which is rich to the point of improbability. Though she looks nothing like a young Redgrave, Danes proves engagingly vivacious as the young, bohemian Ann, who’s quietly disdained by Lila’s socialite mother (Close, in a brief, indelible turn). Gummer’s luminous, trembling Lila anchors the film’s implicit critique of stiff, upper-class propriety, while Dancy makes a vivid impression in the problematic role of the self-destructive closet case. Atkins brings a no-nonsense warmth to the part of Ann’s nurse.
Real-life mother-daughter thesping pairs abound: Redgrave (feeble and senile one minute, wide-awake lucid the next) and Richardson enact their relationship onscreen, and — in a moment deployed as carefully as a secret weapon — Streep, Gummer’s mother, emerges late in the film for a rewarding extended cameo as the elder Lila.
Koltai brings a cinematographer’s eye to the production, with lyrical images — Redgrave’s Ann reclining on a boat dock, or a bedroom suddenly teeming with shimmering moths — that tend toward the surreal. Lensing by Gyula Pados (“Fateless”) shows a studied contrast between the rich luster of the ’50s material and the darker contempo footage. Other contributions, including the picturesque locations, production designer Caroline Hanania’s meticulous period re-creations and Jan A.P. Kaczmarek’s full-bodied score, are pristine.