Some Unenchanted Evening

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Focus Features

Claire Danes (left) and Mamie Gummer star in Evening.

Vanessa Redgrave, Meryl Streep, Toni Collette, Eileen Atkins, Glenn Close—Evening represents perhaps the greatest diva round-up in modern movie history. Two of them, Redgrave and Streep, have even brought their daughters, Natasha Richardson and Mamie Gummer respectively, to the party. And the film's producers have thoughtfully added that very winsome diva-in-training, Claire Danes.

Wow, you might think, how bad can that be? To which one responds, after two lugubrious hours in their company, really awful. Rarely have so many gifted women labored so tastefully to bring forth such a wee, lockjawed mouse. The movie begins at the deathbed of Redgrave's Ann Lord, whose thoughts, in her final moments, have turned to a young doctor named Harris (Patrick Wilson), whom she met when she was maid of honor at her best friend's wedding in Newport, R.I. a half century earlier. The bride (Gummer) loved Harris too, but it is Ann (played as a young woman by Danes), an aspiring jazz singer, who gets close to him. Instructive tragedy, however, interrupts their romantic interlude, warning them that the way of the uppercrust WASP must remain dutiful and joyless.

Evening is, to borrow an antique movie company slogan, "In The Tradition of Quality," which in olden times meant adaptations of high-toned popular fiction. No one ever got to say what was on their minds in those films, which often featured feverish and high-strung emoting by such live-wire nut jobs as Bette Davis or Joan Crawford who would haul a handgun out of her handbag and plug whoever was thwarting her hormonal needs. Here everyone suffers in hushed silence.

This may in part because it was Michael Cunningham, author of the book The Hours, another stupefying exercise in unspoken angst, who was hired to punch up the script Susan Minot was trying to make out of her novel. They share screenplay credit for Evening, but even in the press kit you can sense her loathing for his work. He's sort of Henry James without the cojones and definitely the most constipated sensibility the literary community has lately been in awe of. But I suspect that the director, Lajos Koltai, a Hungarian, has even more to do with the film's inertness. One does not imagine him to be particularly expert in the manners, morals and habits of the American Protestant patriciate of a half-century ago. One also imagines him being slightly afraid of his high-wattage cast, incapable of molding them into an ensemble. Only Streep, appearing in a couple of scenes, hints at the sort of brisk, no-nonsense playing that might have rescued the movie.

Ar the end of the day—or Evening—what we have here is a movie that is, most fundamentally, an anti-movie. That is to say, it is all wistful regrets about nothing very much, statically staged, lacking in dramatic incident, gripping confrontations, a compelling dramatic arc. There's simply no point in making-or seeing-movies in which pretty people stand about mooning over what might have been. For better or worse, they have to be about people who challenge their fates, instead of limply succumbing to them.