Halfway through Lajos Koltai’s “Evening,” a woman on her deathbed asks a figure appearing in her hallucination: “Can you tell me where my life went?” The line could be embarrassingly theatrical, but the woman speaking it is Vanessa Redgrave, delivering it with utter simplicity, and the question tears your heart out.
Time and again, the film based on Susan Minot’s novel skirts sentimentality and ordinariness. It also holds your attention, offers admirable performances and engenders emotional involvement as few recent movies have. With only six months of the year gone, there are now two memorable, meaningful, worthwhile films in theaters, the other being Sarah Polley’s “Away from Her.”
Hollywood might have turned “Evening” into a slick celebrity vehicle with its two pairs of real-life mothers and daughters — Vanessa Redgrave and Natasha Richardson, and Meryl Streep and Mamie Gummer. Richardson is Redgrave’s daughter in the film (with a sister played by Tony Collette), and Gummer plays Streep’s younger self, while Redgrave’s youthful incarnation is Claire Danes.
Add Glenn Close, Eileen Atkins, Hugh Dancy, Patrick Wilson and a large cast — yes, it could have turned into a multiple star platform. Instead, Koltai — the brilliant Hungarian cinematographer of “Mephisto” and director of “Fateless” — created a subtle ensemble work with a “continental feel.”
Missed connections, wrong choices, and dutiful compliance with social and family pressures present quite a soap opera, but the quality of the writing, Koltai’s direction, and selfless acting raise “Evening” way above that level, into the rarified air of English, French (and a few American) family sagas from a century before its contemporary setting. Complex relationships between mothers and daughters, between friends and lovers, with the addition of a difficult triangle all come across captivatingly.
And yet, with the all the foregoing emphasis on ensemble and selfless performances, the stars of “Evening” still shine through, with Redgrave, Richardson, Gummer and Danes carrying most of the load — until Streep shows up in the final moments and, of course, steals the show. Dancy and Wilson are well worth the price of admission, too.
As with “Away from Her,” “Evening” stays with you at length, inviting rethinking its story and characters, and re-experiencing the emotions it raises. At two hours, the film runs a bit long, but the way it stays with you is welcome among the many movies that go cold long before your popcorn.
Starring Claire Danes, Toni Collette, Vanessa Redgrave, Patrick Wilson, Hugh Dancy, Natasha Richardson, Dame Eileen Atkins, Mamie Gummer, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Glenn Close, Meryl Streep
Written by Michael Cunningham, Susan Minot
Directed by Lajos Koltai
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes