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A weepie examination of female and sexual identity whose worth is roughly equal to that of a used Kleenex, Evening is a schmaltzy nostalgic fusion of clichéd melodrama and carpe-diem lessons about regret, love and courage. Based on Susan Minot's novel from a screenplay by the author and The Hours scribe Michael Cunningham, director Lajos Koltai's (Fateless) feature is a golden-hued eye-roller, full of gorgeous seaside locales, beautiful people, and oh-so-profound issues of life and death, not a one believable thanks to Koltai's insistent sappiness and a story that's familiar, goofy and unbearably corny. A bifurcated affair, Evening begins at the bedside vigil of dying Ann (Vanessa Redgrave), where her two daughters Constance (Natasha Richardson) and Nina (Toni Collette) argue over their differing life paths -- Constance is a suburban wife and mom of two, Nina is an aimless mess unable to commit to the boyfriend with whom she's expecting a child -- while listening to mom enigmatically prattle on about a man named Harris.
Commence flashbacks and the piano-and-flute score, because this soggy mystery is the film's meat-and-potatoes, as Minot's tale goes on to detail the momentous romance between young Ann (Claire Danes) and Dr. Harris (Patrick Wilson) at the 1950s Newport wedding of Ann's best friend Lila Wittenborn (Mamie Gummer, who plays -- and in real life is -- the daughter of Meryl Streep). A Greenwich Village bohemian who pays her way singing in skuzzy nightclubs while dreaming of stardom, Ann arrives at Lila's cliffside mansion with Lila's brother Buddy (Hugh Dancy), a cheery fellow who drowns feelings of self-loathing and inadequacy about his writing talents (he dreams of being the next Hemingway) with alcohol. Koltai shoots this swanky setting like he's working on the latest J. Crew catalog spread, his overly sentimental images of the outstretched twilight ocean nicely meshing with dying Ann's faux-wondrous hallucinations about fireflies, butterflies, and a night nurse dressed in a sparkly evening gown. Every moment and aspect of Evening is suffocatingly twee and self-satisfied -- except, that is, for those brief occasions when it's just pitifully conventional.
Upon arriving at the estate, Buddy points out to Ann (whom he supposedly fancies) a jetty known as The Plunge. While the remainder of the film is one big build-up to a climactic event at that ominous-sounding locale, there's no real suspense to the proceedings, nor any genuine investigation of class conflict or social rigidity, two pertinent issues which are swept under the rug so more attention can be paid to the gooey romantic entanglements ensnaring the young protagonists. Yet seeing as how there's little spark between any of the principal players, and in light of the fact that Redgrave's portentous comments about death and heartache make clear the tragic conclusion lying in wait, there's no real hook to the material, no reason to remain invested in the characters' schematically plotted dilemmas. It also doesn't help that Koltai's aesthetic -- full of tender shadows and twinkling nighttime skies -- is so precious, and that the film is marked by the overacting of Redgrave, Dancy, and Glenn Close, with Close habitually flashing a ridiculously cartoonish fuming-mad, pursed-lip smile as Lila's prim-and-proper mother.
Harris, the son of the Wittenborn's former housekeeper, is Evening's epicenter of desire, whom Lila still pines for like a schoolgirl, Ann swoons for during some stargazing, and -- in the film's secret-that's-not-a-secret -- Buddy covertly covets. Unfortunately, Harris is such a cipher that his status as the narrative's hub seems unwarranted, a situation compounded by bland performances from Wilson and Danes, the latter stuck in a role that primarily requires her to smile, pout, and soulfully lip-sync to ballads. Dancy, meanwhile, does his best imitation of Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, profusely sweating, angrily venting, and grinning like a fool, as he provides co-screenwriter Cunningham with another closeted gay character (after Julianne Moore's housewife in The Hours) to juxtapose against the conformist social norms of the '50s. Still, though the actor's histrionics may be grating, they're at least lively, which is more than can be said about the present-day drama between Ann and her two daughters, who tediously bicker and sob before coming to trite realizations -- there are no mistakes in life! Seize happiness when you can! -- that the film tiresomely telegraphs from half a century away.