Susan Minot's novel Evening is a complex exploration of the fragmented and disordered memories of a dying woman, focusing on the weekend of her friend's wedding and the tragic events that occurred. Michael Cunningham is an acclaimed novelist and screenwriter with a talent for creating fascinating and fully developed female characters and a penchant for bisexual love triangles. One would think that when these two writers worked together to adapt Evening to the screen that the results would be a modern masterpiece. Instead, Evening, the second film from German director of photography Lajos Koltai, is a complete and utter mess. Constantly and sloppily transitioning between the past and the present, Evening is never able to take a full grasp on what parts of the story it is trying to tell, and what message it is trying to convey through that story.
By Tom Houseman
July 9, 2007
The story sifts through the mess of Ann Grant Lord (Vanessa Redgrave), who is on her deathbed, watched over by her two daughters (Toni Colette and Natasha Richardson) and her nurse (Eileen Atkins). Ann relates to her daughters' memories of her youth (played by Claire Danes), her friendship with Lila Wittenborn (Mamie Gummer) and Lila's brother Buddy (Hugh Dancy), who is madly in love with Ann. At Lila's wedding, Ann's friendship with Buddy becomes strained when Ann falls in love with Harris Arden (Patrick Wilson), who is also the secret love of Lila and, though he is too afraid to admit it, Buddy.
As it becomes more complicated at every turn, with love affairs turning into love triangles and then into other, even more complicated shapes better suited to a geometry class than a movie, Koltai, Cunningham, and Minot lose control of their story. Perhaps the worst decision was the inclusion of fantasy sequences intertwined with Ann's memories, which add nothing to the story but to further complicate everything and slow down the pace of the film, which is already almost fatally slow. What's worst is that these sequences never seem believable, and instead serve only as distractions from the film's plot, without giving us any more insight into Ann's emotional development.
Fortunately, Koltai is able to do one thing right as the director, and it is clear that his experience as a director of photography is a benefit; the cinematography in Evening is breathtaking. Several shots look like works of art, especially the landscapes of the beach and the mansion where the wedding takes place. Watching these gorgeous views that feel like paintings is often enough to let the audience ignore the overly complicated and uninvolved storytelling, but not for the full two hours of the film.
It is the cast that is the true saving point of Evening, because while the story never draws in the viewer, the characters do, mostly thanks to the excellent portrayals. Claire Danes is given her most interesting part since the TV show "My So-Called Life," and takes advantage of it by giving an emotionally restrained yet powerful performance. As the old Ann, Vanessa Redgrave takes a part that could have been extremely dull and makes it ring far more true than anything going on around her. Watching her fight death and remember the tragic events of her past is heartbreaking. But the real breakout star of the film is Hugh Dancy, who is given his first great part after films like Basic Instinct 2 and King Arthur. Buddy is filled with so many conflicting emotions throughout the film, and Dancy does a fantastic job of keeping everything just below the surface, but still letting us see the torment he is going through. His scenes with Claire Danes are the best part of the film.
There are a few powerful moments in Evening that, along with the performances and the cinematography, make it a film worth seeing. But it is so frustrating seeing these glimpses of beauty trapped in the disorganized, overstuffed mess that is Evening. Had Koltai been able to produce some sort of consistency in his film, Evening could have achieved some of the potential it showed, but the film is too sloppy to overcome its myriad faults, and merely wallows instead of glides, and clomps along instead of flowing.