"Evening" is flawed in more ways than one, but just as a stirring book might, it is the cumulative feeling and resonant emotions evoked that take precedence over the somewhat clunky narrative. It's no surprise, then, that the film is an adaptation of a novel by Susan Minot. She and Michael Cunningham (2004's "A Home at the End of the World
") have written a screenplay full of small moments of self-reflection and character interaction taking place in two time periods fifty years apart. Not all of these specifically forward the story, but when you mix them into a tearjerker plot involving copious flashbacks, death-bed laments, urgent words left unspoken, irony-laced tragedy, and a love affair set among the rocky cliffs and idyllic currents of the New England seashore, they do help to anchor "Evening" with a sense of thoughtful levity.
In the present day, Ann Grant Lord's (Vanessa Redgrave) life is drawing to a close. Watched over by grown daughters Nina (Toni Collette) and Constance (Natasha Richardson) and night nurse Mrs. Brown (Eileen Atkins), her dementia worsens. As she slips in and out of consciousness and speaks aloud for the first time about her regrets over someone named Harris, Ann's memories of herself as a young woman turn back the clock to the 1950s. It is during the weekend in which close friend Lila Wittenborn (Mamie Gummer) is about to be married that twentysomething Ann (Claire Danes) travels to their luscious summer cottage to attend the ceremony as a bridesmaid. Reunited with Lila and Lila's adoring brother Buddy (Hugh Dancy), both former classmates, Ann is on the cusp of adulthood, weighing her options as she decides whether or not to pursue a singing career. One of those other options, it turns out, is the handsome Harris Arden (Patrick Wilson), a dashing small-town doctor whose one night spent with Ann still haunts her a half-century later.
A meditation on life and death and the alternate joy and remorse in between, "Evening" is a moving melodrama not half as saccharine as it is genuinely affecting. Directed by Lajos Koltai, the film faces an uphill battle because, although the themes ring true, the crucial relationship at its core hits a false note. For someone to have such an overwhelming impact on another's remaining living days, the film must portray their love story with the substance required. This one doesn't. Harris, played with bland aloofness by Patrick Wilson (2006's "Little Children
"), is good-looking, but not enough for Ann, Lila and possibly even Buddy to be simultaneously in love with him. Furthermore, Ann's and Harris' time spent together is negligible, at best; they meet only a day or two before Lila's wedding, spend the night together following the reception, and that's it. Despite what director Koltai would like the viewer to believe, there is no detectable connection or chemistry between Ann and Harris, the former igniting far more sparks (and a deeper bond) with Buddy. For Ann to be racked with questions of "what-if?" for the rest of her life is a stretch.
The other element that "Evening" stumbles on is its unskilled, jarring scene transitions and awkward editing by Allyson C. Johnson (2004's "Vanity Fair
"). These things improve a bit in the second half, but the way the flashbacks (and, it must be added, the occasional hallucinations of Ann) are tossed in between the modern scenes lacks cohesion. For example, the fatally sick Ann might mention Harris to one of her daughters, only for the scene to shift to a young Ann walking along the beach with Buddy and not going so far as to mentioning Harris in their conversation. A subplot revolving around Nina's lack of direction in her own life and the decisions she must make when she finds out she is pregnant serves a specific purpose in the grand scheme of things, but also comes off as filler.
Fortunately, the majority of the running time is dedicated to the 1950s-set segments, and whatever storytelling kinks there are tend to get ironed out by the astute writing and brilliant ensemble. Claire Danes (2005's "Shopgirl
") is a heartbreaking beacon of light as the younger Ann, struggling to find herself as she supports and comforts those around her. Her friendships with Lila, herself conflicted about whether her fianc is right for her, and Buddy, a confused and lonely alcoholic who yearns for Ann and can't bear to see his sister marry the wrong guy, are infused with quietly mounting poignancy.
As Lila, newcomer Mamie Gummer is a warm and inviting presence. Her uncanny resemblance to Meryl Streep (2006's "The Devil Wears Prada
"), who shows up for a brief but unforgettable appearance near the end as the older Lila, isn't a happy accident; Gummer is Streep's real-life daughter. As Buddy, Hugh Dancy (2007's "Blood and Chocolate
") is remarkable in the complexity he brings to the role, and a scene in which he shows Ann a frivolous note she once passed to him in school that he has kept in his pocket ever since is so painfully honest and intimate the viewer almost feels like an intruder for watching. In the present interludes, Vanessa Redgrave's (2001's "The Pledge
") eloquent, soul-exposing performance as the elder Ann makes a lot of emotional mileage for someone who is bedridden for the duration. And Toni Collette (2006's "Little Miss Sunshine
"), as Nina, enlivens her scenes with pathos even if her storyline is the weakest of the principles.
Resplendently photographed by Gayula Pados (2006's "Basic Instinct 2
"), whose lensing on the beaches and countryside of Rhode Island looks like footage ready-made for a travel video, "Evening" is lush, gentle and a pleasant respite from the explosions and special effects of the rest of this summer's releases. Director Lajos Koltai lends convincing sentiment and soul to the project even with the problem areas taken into account, and his look at the paths not taken and the decisions made that add up to a full, messy, beautiful human life is nothing less than thought-provoking. For a movie that begins on such shaky footing, "Evening" packs an impassioned wallop by the end.