Talking about Lajos Koltai’s Evening on the radio Friday morning before I’d been able to see the movie, I put forth the idea that it seemed unlikely that any film with such a cast and a screenplay coauthored by the man who wrote the novel The Hours (Michael Cunningham) could be without interest. And Evening is not without interest. The problem is that most of the interest stems from the inevitable fascination generated by watching a slow-motion train wreck—a very slow-motion train wreck that gives you time to linger on and savor every grisly moment of the disaster.
Oh, there are good moments in the film. It’s often visually striking (the director, Koltai, is best known as a cinematographer, in fact). But its good moments never add up to a cohesive film, and its striking images are all too often just striking for their own sake without being especially relevant to whatever themes the film is supposed to be exploring. And what themes are those? Beats me, because the movie doesn’t seem to know what it is or what it even hopes to be. At its best, it has a kind of tongue-tied eloquence—as if it has something to say, but can’t verbalize it. At one moment, it feels like a bad 1950s soap opera of the Ross Hunter variety. The next it feels like ersatz Bergman from folks who learned all they know about Bergman from watching Woody Allen’s Interiors (1978). Then it turns around and seems to be appropriated from Ken Russell’s TV films on the Lake District poets, Clouds of Glory (1978). If that doesn’t work for you, hold on, it’ll start resembling Callie Khouri’s Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002). But most of the time, it just seems like a hopelessly desperate attempt to be Stephen Daldry’s The Hours (2002). Worst of all, is the simple fact that the film—at least so far as I was concerned—is incapable of generating any real emotional investment in the characters. That, as they say, is the zither that cooks the goose.
Considering Evening‘s overwhelming desire to be The Hours, I came home from seeing it and almost immediately popped in Daldry’s film to get a better handle on just why The Hours works and Evening doesn’t. Both have multiple time frames with interconnecting stories. Both films have an obsessive search for some kind of single defining moment in someone’s life (a cozy simplicity that works better as drama than in real life). Both are character-centered and rely heavily on the actors to get their stories across. But it didn’t take long to see the difference between the two films. The Hours grabs you from the onset and propels you headlong into the story with a sense of urgency—a deft cinematic blend of writing, acting, visual patterning and Philip Glass’ insistent musical score. It truly creates a heavily layered, densely textured work that constantly interconnects. By contrast, Evening merely shifts back and forth between two time frames in an almost languorous manner. There’s no sense of urgency—though the film attempts to create some through the Toni Collette character—and neither the central point of obsession nor the characters are sufficiently compelling to propel the film. Rather than creating a vibrant picture, the movie ends up being little more than flashbacks tied to the deathbed memories and fantasies of Ann Grant Lord (Vanessa Redgrave).
In its own way, this might have worked—assuming anyone could quite believe that Claire Danes would age into Vanessa Redgrave. And occasionally, it does work—as in the scene where Redgrave’s Ann imagines herself interacting with a musician from her distant past—but mostly it doesn’t. Redgrave—who was perhaps attracted to the restfulness of a role that is largely played lying down—nearly pulls it off. She’s certainly the only actress I can think of who wouldn’t make me burst out laughing at a quasi-mystical scene where she imagines clambering out of her deathbed to wander around in pursuit of a CGI moth. And she gets all the good she can out of her occasionally witty lines, especially in her exchanges with her nurse (Eileen Atkins).
The very real problem is the object of everyone’s obsession: Harris Arden (Patrick Wilson, The Phantom of the Opera). According to the film, not only is he Ann’s long-lost love from 50 years earlier, but he’s also the long-lost love of Lila Wittenborn (played in the present by Meryl Streep and in the past by Streep’s daughter Mamie Gummer) and the impossible love of Lila’s brother Buddy (Hugh Dancy, Blood and Chocolate). There’s no denying that Harris Arden reputedly has “it”—at least according to the dictates of the story. The trouble is that Harris doesn’t have “it.” This is partly the fault of Patrick Wilson, who plays the entire film like a man in need of a powerful laxative, but he’s not entirely to blame. Nothing—except that the screenplay says so—about the character as written even gets near explaining why “we all were in love with him.” Blame Cunningham for making this worse than it might have been, since the whole echt-50s tragic homosexual love angle for Buddy didn’t exist in Susan Minot’s source novel, but was grafted onto the proceedings by Cunningham. Was this an attempt to push the story more into the realm of The Hours or merely an attempt to flesh out and explain Buddy’s apparent alcoholism? (The “too perceptive,” possibly gay younger brother with-the-drinking-problem shtick dates at least back to Philip Barry’s 1928 play Holiday.) It hardly matters, because it comes equipped here with the insurmountable hurdle of buying all this excitement over the unexciting Harris.
The sad part is that the good aspects of Evening get lost in the shuffle. Redgrave is fine; Toni Collette is good; Mamie Gummer is excellent; Claire Danes alternates between good and strangely awkward; Hugh Dancy at least suggests that he might one day be a good actor. Others in the stellar cast—Glenn Close, Eileen Atkins, Natasha Richardson—are their professional selves, but come across like classy window dressing. Meryl Streep—showing up like Julianne Moore in old-age makeup in The Hours to pull it all together—feels like a guest star in a hurry (something exacerbated by her taxi returning to pick her up as soon as her scene is over). The bottom line is that Evening just isn’t the film it ought to have been. Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements, sexual material, a brief accident scene and language.