"Evening" wants desperately to be "The Hours."
Better luck next time.
There are elements to relish here, including one of the strongest casts in recent memory.
But Lajos Koltai's film, adapted by Susan Minot and "The Hours' " Michael Cunningham from Minot's best-seller, often feels synthetic and formulaic. Only in its final moments does "Evening" really grab our emotions.
Dying will do that to you.
Ravaged by cancer, Ann (Vanessa Redgrave) lies in her bedroom and drifts in and out of lucidity. On hand are her daughters, the bohemian Nina (Toni Collette ) and the conventional soccer mom Constance (Natasha Richardson).
The sisters are at odds over how to deal with Mom's impending demise. When Ann rambles on about some event in the distant past, Nina encourages her to vent. Constance wants to shush her up. Meanwhile, Nina is struggling with her inability to commit to her adoring boyfriend, even though she finds herself with child.
Also on hand is a nurse (Eileen Atkins) who, in Ann's fevered mind, occasionally appears in a ball gown.
But the bulk of "Evening" unfolds in the mid 1950s, when Ann (played as a young woman by Claire Danes) attended the wedding of her best friend Lila (Mamie Gummer), a society girl she met in college.
Friends and family have congregated at the imposing Newport mansion of Lila's parents (Glen Close, Barry Bostwick). Ann, a working class girl who earns a meager living as a jazz singer (she's not a very good one), feels at sea with these "quality" folk.
Minidramas unfold. Lila is having cold feet about getting hitched to a nice, bland society boy. She's been nursing an unrequited love for Harris (Patrick Wilson), the hunky son of the hired help who was a childhood friend and is now a successful physician.
Then there's Lila's brother Buddy (Hugh Dancy), a tennis-anyone? rich kid, alternately charming and irritating and tormented by alcohol and sex. He's carrying flames for both Ann and Harris.
Meanwhile Harris and Ann, perhaps drawn together by their blue-collar origins, sneak away from the party to share a night of passion. Tragedy, though, is just around the corner.
Part of the problem, I think, is that director Koltai isn't at home with the American mileu in which "Evening" takes place. Since most of the film unfolds in Ann's sedated mind, you could argue that "Evening's" not-quite-right feel is a deliberate attempt to create a dream state.
More likely Koltai, a veteran Hungarian cinematographer who only recently turned to directing, simply was unfamiliar with this very Yankee setting and his unease found its way to the screen.
I was mildly irritated and a bit bored by most of "Evening." But in the last quarter, when death approaches and Ann is paid a visit by her old friend Lila (Meryl Streep, playing the old-lady version of the role portrayed by her daughter Gummer in the flashbacks), "Evening" finally finds its dramatic teeth.
Staring down mortality, Redgrave is monumentally good. You'll wish she were on the screen more often.
2 ½ stars out of four.
Director: Lajos Koltai
Cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Claire Danes, Mamie Gummer, Meryl Streep, Eileen Atkins, Patrick Wilson, Hugh Dancy, Glen Close, Toni Collette, Natasha Richardson.
Rated: PG-13 for some thematic elements, sexual material, a brief accident scene and language.
Running time: 1:50