Review: 'Evening' Powerful, But Compromised

On her deathbed, Ann Lord (Vanessa Redgrave) envisions her once youthful self, floating away in a boat. It’s an effective metaphor–not for the story, but for the film. Something’s gone adrift–but not so far as to override a stunning performance from Claire Danes as the young Ann Lord, with strong support from Hugh Dancy as Buddy.

The script is pregnant with possibilities and unfortunately they are all birthed in two crowded hours. It’s likely that all the subplots, social commentaries, flashbacks, and idiosyncratic characters would have made for an exquisite offering, and probably did in the book of the same name from which the script was adapted. The result is powerful, but compromised.

Floating through dreams and pain-killer induced hallucinations, the elderly Ann revisits her college days in the fifties. Arriving at blue-blooded Newport for her best friend and sorority sister’s wedding, she is received enthusiastically, both by Lila (Mamie Gummer), the bride to be and the betrothed’s brother Buddy. Ann brings a fresh unaffected air to the very stuffy confines of a caste system so regressive, as to be tribal. Ann’s credentials as open-minded and unpretentious are established when someone asks where she bought her sandals. “The Village”, she answers. Still confronted by puzzled faces, Ann expands, “Greenwich Village.”

As the wedding day arrives, Ann becomes the vessel for her friend’s internal rebellion, the bride-to-be confessing an unrequited love for the son of the family’s caretaker, Harris (Patrick Wilson), now a doctor. There are tears and feigned disgust over marrying someone else, a man she does not love. Faithful and genuine, Ann, ready to support Lila whatever the decision, never realizes that her friend would never seriously contemplate flouting the norms that afford her an extravagant lifestyle. In fact, Ann, who takes much on face value, has missed that Buddy, her long time close friend, has fallen in love with her. To further complicate (and enrich) the situation, both Buddy and Ann have eyes for the doctor, the consequence of which leads to an unforeseeable tragedy.

These distant recollections and others by dying the woman, measuring a life lived with the inevitable miscalculations, unearths guilt and regret. The only possible redemption lies in mining some insight; a gem of wisdom, to pass on to her two daughters, there would be some redemption. This humble goal provides the frame for “Evening”. It also requires, in the mind of the writers, one being the book author, the development of another pair of characters, removed by light-years of time and context to the interlaced drama in Newport. Unfortunately these scenes feel like a compulsory exercise, lacking the investment so prominent in the rest of the movie.

In a nutshell, “Evening” suffers from an embarrassment of riches–talented writers and actors, boasting Oscars and a Pulitzer Prize. Buried in this crowded cast is Glenn Close, who as Lila’s mother, gets in little more that a few disapproving grimaces– a high society caricature. Vanessa Redgrave’s character, sedated by medication, is for the most part reduced to cryptic murmurs. Academy Award nominee Toni Collette, as one of Ann’s daughters, squeezes out just enough screen time to make her character intelligible and Meryl Streep slips in at the end as the elderly Lila.

So the glass is half empty or it’s very full and satisfying, if you don’t mind a bit of overspill.

Lester Gray reviews movies for Examiner.com.

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