Parked uneasily between sensitive indie and studio chick flick, Lajos Koltai's Evening makes star-studded hash of Susan Minot's beautifully written, if emotionally constricted, novel about a terminally ill woman trying to wrest meaning out of the shards of her memories. Floating in and out of delirium in her Cambridge, Massachusetts, home, Ann Lord — a former singer, twice married to men she didn't fully love and vice versa — is cared for by her two daughters, played in the movie by the world's least likely siblings, Natasha Richardson and Toni Collette. The sisters are women's-novel cutouts — bickering but close, and initially too preoccupied with their own messy issues to register that their mother keeps calling out a man's name they don't recognize. The novel doesn't have much of a plot, and, truth to tell, not much of a secret: Long ago, Ann loved and lost a man named Harris at the New England wedding of her best friend, Lila. But at its best, Minot's book is less about some objective state we call the past than about the search for the crucial memory that will organize the fragments of Ann's life into a story — or not. Visitors both real and imagined fade in and out, but the unspoken ghost in the room is Proust, with a dab of Virginia Woolf.
Remembering is a novel's business, and notoriously difficult to translate to the screen. Only Raoul Ruiz's dazzlingly free adaptation of Proust's Time Regained (whose frame of a dying man trying to unscramble his memories Minot lifted more or less wholesale) has come close to replicating the creative role of recall — sparked by fear, desire and regret — in giving shape and significance to the experiential jumble that we call the past.
Koltai's fat resumé as the celebrated cinematographer of movies from Mephisto to (eek!) Home for the Holidays seems of little help here. Neither is his directing debut, Fateless, a brilliant but resolutely linear movie about a Hungarian Jewish boy wandering through Nazi concentration camps. Lost in translation aside from a few allusions to the mind's compulsion to condense and conflate the past — Harris visits the sick room periodically, and Ann's night nurse (an underused Eileen Atkins) appears to her patient in a white satin evening dress — Evening boils down to a flat back-and-forth between old Ann (Vanessa Redgrave, prone and wheezy) and young Ann (a frighteningly thin Claire Danes), whom we see in prolonged flashbacks screwing up her life with a handsome doctor at the wedding in scenic Rhode Island.
However ably played by the equally scenic Patrick Wilson, Harris is more stud muffin than madeleine, which makes it odd that Koltai has cut out the novel's scads of steamy sex. Odder still that Minot, who's credited as co-screenwriter with Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours and a connoisseur of defiantly inadequate mothers, agreed to that. You have to wonder, too, what she thought of Cunningham's major plot surgery, which corrals just about every hot-eyed young thing in the movie to fall in love with the undeserving Harris, playing up hints of incestuous attraction and inserting a homoerotic subtext involving a painfully miscast Hugh Dancy as a rich young drunk with forthcoming tragedy in his puppy eyes.
Stripped of the rhythmic lilt of Minot's prose and her delicate probe into the treacheries that time and memory work on our lives, Evening tips over into farce, leaving us unsure whether Harris is Ann's great love or a complete waste of her time and emotional energy. That's a real question, and it comes as a relief when Meryl Streep, as Lila the Elder, blows into town for a final farewell and some sensible advice for the flailing women gathered at Ann's bedside. As the cautionary tale of mothers and daughters it negligently aspires to be, Evening is strictly old news. But if nothing else, a good time can be had marveling at the rosy incandescence that Streep shares with her daughter Mamie Gummer, who plays Lila as a young woman. It's not yet clear what kind of an actress Gummer will be; as the bride, she has little to do but make cow eyes at a man who isn't her groom. But she has one big thing going for her: Like her famous ma, she's unquenchably lit from within.
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