A-List Actresses' Sappy 'Evening': Hey, It's Bedtime

Natasha Richardson, left, and Vanessa Redgrave provide the one poignant part to the overwrought
Natasha Richardson, left, and Vanessa Redgrave provide the one poignant part to the overwrought "Evening." (By Gene Page -- Focus Features)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 29, 2007

"Evening," an excruciatingly refined adaptation of Susan Minot's novel, might be the longest night in cinematic history as it makes its crepuscular way through the trials and tragedies of the very wealthy. It's the sort of high-grade cheese that in the 1950s would have been the stuff of a lurid, highly pitched melodrama by Douglas Sirk.

The 21st century, alas, is a more restrained time, when middlebrow sentimentalism comes garnished with unfailing good taste and literary pretensions. Co-written for the screen by Michael Cunningham ("The Hours") and directed by Lajos Koltai, "Evening," stars Vanessa Redgrave as Ann Grant Lord, a woman on her deathbed who, haunted by regrets, begins to relive her first love while her adult daughters look on with discreet concern. Told as a series of flashbacks, the multigenerational romantic saga co-stars Claire Danes as Ann of the 1950s, a free-spirited bohemian who nearly scandalizes the wedding weekend of her best friend Lila (Mamie Gummer) by wearing a peasant blouse to the latter's Newport "cottage." Over the course of that (what else?) fateful weekend, Ann will fall for the right guy, break the heart of the wrong guy and discover that the rich are different from you and me, if only because the sticks up their posteriors are made of better wood.

The ghosts of Fitzgerald and Hemingway haunt "Evening" like admonitory spirits, but the fact that they're explicitly invoked in the movie doesn't make it any less derivative. Even an ensemble of A-list actresses can't rouse the fussy, overwrought production from maudlin inertness. Toni Collette, as Ann's grown daughter Nina, delivers a performance straight from her bag of tics labeled "petulant, spiky"; for her part Glenn Close, as Lila's ur-WASP of a mother, seems to be starring in "Sunny von Bulow: The Prequel."

There is one admittedly poignant sequence, when Redgrave's real-life daughter, Natasha Richardson, playing her fictional eldest daughter Constance, tries desperately to reach a mother who's slipping away. But when Meryl Streep -- Gummer's real mom -- shows up as the 70-something Lila, whatever spell that was cast has been reduced to a stunt.

So sensitive, so serious, so painstakingly composed in its evocation of aristocratic angst, "Evening" sags and ultimately flattens under the weight of its own pretensions and impeccable pedigree. Indeed, it's so perfectly wrought that you won't believe a word of it. For tragedy amongst the hydrangeas, make mine a Gatsby -- or, failing that, a good old-fashioned kitschy Sirk.

Evening (117 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for adult themes, sexual material, a brief accident scene and profanity.

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