Evening / Agent Bedhead
Film Reviews | June 29, 2007 | Comments ()
Hollywood has a made a long habit of bastardizing decent books for adaptation to the big screen. In some cases, this works out well, and in others, not so much. In The Wizard of Oz, the brilliant Technicolor separates dream from reality, and the least spectacular parts of the book are judiciously omitted. Conversely, most adaptations of Anna Karenina heavily focus on the passionate love story, leave out significant details, and fail to endear the main character to the audience in spite of her deviance. Ultimately, the fate of a book is consigned to the scripting process, and Evening is, sadly, a casualty of it — the result of a failed attempt to adapt a book composed almost entirely of morphine-induced unquoted dialogue and stream of consciousness bullshit. Perhaps Focus Features should have considered whether a good movie had ever come out of a William Faulkner novel before sinking millions into this production.
In Evening, director Lajos Koltai has collected an awe-inspiring cast of capable actresses: Vanessa Redgrave, Meryl Streep, Claire Danes, Natasha Richardson, Toni Collette, Glenn Close, and Mamie Gummer. The story is adapted by Michael Cunningham from Susan Minot’s novel — a book that I happened to have read a few years ago after losing a bet to a friend with one major weakness: a love of chick-lit. As a novel, Evening is beautifully written with lyrical prose, but the melodramatic storyline qualifies it as a candidate for the Oprah Book Club. To wit: The relatively occupied theater I sat in was devoid of any men whatsoever. Stealthily, I navigated to the uppermost and least populated row, where only those with ample knee cartilage dared to tread, and waited for all the depressing shit to happen. It didn’t take long.
The main character, Ann Lord (Vanessa Redgrave), is on her deathbed and attended to by daughters Constance (Natasha Richardson) and Nina (Toni Colette), as well as an omnipotent night nurse. Although her money bought a beautiful white room in a huge old Rhode Island house to die in, Ann regrets her waste of what everyone else characterizes as a “full life.” In her drugged-up state, she starts mumbling about her only love Harris, some dude the daughters had never heard of. As Ann drifts on her milky bedspread with gauzy white shades fluttering, the film begins its slow dance of death between the past and present.
The past takes place 50 years earlier in Newport, Rhode Island at a lakeside mansion overlooking lush, green, and craggy cliffs resembling Wuthering Heights. A young Ann Lord (Claire Danes), an aspiring singer from New York City, travels to the weekend wedding of her college best friend, Lila (Mamie Gummer). She arrives at an estate Jay Gatsby could call home — a plush mansion filled with pretentious people — where Lila’s mother (Glenn Close) appears occasionally to scowl disapprovingly at Ann. It is immediately clear that Lila doesn’t want to marry her forgettable fiancé, but since her snobby parents expect her not to stray from within their class, she sees no reason to resist her fate.
Meanwhile, the pheromones launch their assault. Lila’s slightly younger brother, Buddy (Hugh Dancy), has been in love with Ann since their college days. Buddy introduces Ann to Harris (Patrick Wilson), who just happens to be their housekeeper’s son and, despite being a total prick, a close childhood companion of the brother and sister. Buddy loves Ann. Ann loves Harris. Lila loves Harris. Buddy loves Harris. Harris loves no one, but he is willing to have a quick fling with Ann in the tool shed. Ladies and gentleman, we have a winner. Harris is a blandly handsome doctor, who as Ann quickly discovers, has one helluva bedside manner. Soon, Ann and Harris are too wrapped up in their own sport fucking to realize anyone else exists. Buddy seems to be the only one who has a clue about life and love, and despite perpetual drunkenness, he manages to utter the only profound statements in the film. This leads to a pivotal tragedy and several instances of unrequited love that supposedly cause Ann to flee into a series of marriages and otherwise stupid life choices. Despite all of this idiocy, Ann somehow manages to end up with what most would consider a good, full life. However, she seems to lend no significance to any of this as she spends her last moments dwelling on the man she sees as the only love of her life. And you’d think, considering how much Ann obsesses over this dude she had a quick fling with decades ago, some of this great sex would be visible onscreen. Oh, but alas, we do not get to see Claire Danes have sex with anyone, so there must be another reason for this revelation. An explanation exists, but unfortunately, the scriptwriter failed to actually read that portion of the novel.
The stellar cast of Evening just can’t pull this movie out of the blue-blooded bullet holes. Vanessa Redgrave delivers her usual caliber of performance, and Claire Danes is perfectly suited for the coquettish young Ann whose life previously held so much promise. Natasha Richardson, the real-life daughter of Redgrave, ended up with a poorly written part that doesn’t make the most of her obvious strengths. Toni Collette takes the stage as the far more likable daughter of Ann Lord. Hugh Dancy makes a right excellent lush of a Buddy, whose quick descent into a Fitzgerald stock character is fittingly painful to watch. Lila is played convincingly enough by Mamie Gummer, and predictably moreso by her real-life mother, Meryl Streep. The scene between elderly Ann and Lila seems to be cast as a lifeline meant to save the otherwise convoluted film, and the moment of recognition of her old friend by Redgrave is unmistakably profound. This scene, while stellar, is not enough to save the film from a Michael Cunningham’s misguided scripting session. Besides, the notion that anyone would spend their last moments thinking about a 50-year old fling, well, that in itself is pretty fucked up.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma and tries to avoid reality at all costs. She also insults Pete Doherty daily at agentbedhead.com.