Can resignation be a virtue? That question lies at the center of Lajos Koltai’s Evening, a plodding, multigenerational drama that looks back at the life of Ann Grant Lord (Vanessa Redgrave). As she remembers, we see two convoluted narratives filtered through an ancient notion of “women”‘s hopes, disappointments, and obligations. But more troubling than Evening‘s technical failures, the film suffers from a host of cynical political and social themes that undercut the drama throughout.
Both stories are full of drama. Young Ann (Claire Danes) is a struggling, New York City lounge singer transplanted for a weekend to Newport for the wedding of her best friend from college, Lila (Mamie Gummer). Unsure that she wants to marry her fiancé Carl (Timothy Kiefer), Lila is plainly in love with Harris (Patrick Wilson), son of the maid, currently a doctor. He, however, doesn’t love her. Lila’s brother Buddy (Hugh Dancy), sexually confused and alcoholic, apparently loves both Harris and Ann, neither of whom love him. As Ann tries to convince Lila to leave the wedding behind, she falls in love with Harris herself, as they share a romantic night that adversely affects Lila and her family, a ripple effect that follows Ann to her deathbed.
As Ann now lies dying, she struggles to sort out what happened with Harris, whom she calls her “first mistake.” Her daughters, Nina (Toni Collette) and Connie (Natasha Richardson), have no idea what she’s talking about. While they worry she’s turning delirious, they berate each other’s life choices and debate what it means to be a “fulfilled woman.” Connie is contentedly married with children, Nina’s the acerbic hip-chick who puts off her boyfriend Luc (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) with quips like “Can’t we discuss this sometime when my mother isn’t dying?”
As this cursory opposition between the sisters suggests, the film is structured by shortcuts. Newport is littered with stereotypical ’50s socialites, one of the most egregious being Lila’s mother (Glenn Close), prissy, judgmental, and lily-white in every way. Framed as the sympathetic “outsider,” Ann nonetheless fails to challenge the expectations of her moneyed “friends.” Even when she so tritely tells Buddy, “You don’t love me, you just love the idea of me,” she can’t anticipate that she’ll be idealizing Harris the same way 50 years down the road. That is, she doesn’t see how the dreary classism of her hosts shaped her own life at the same time she believed she was resisting it.
In the present, Constance and Nina repeat their mother’s patterns of remorse and remonstration. Even Nina, who fights so hard to be a “free spirit,” is chastened by pregnancy — which she reveals to her mother (before Luc or Connie) with melodramatic grandeur. Flashbacks reveal Ann’s difficulties raising two children when she wanted to pursue her career, opening the way for the daughters to ponder their own limited choices.
While Ann’s memories reveal both her pain and joy over a span of years and places, her daughters’ stories are constrained by the film’s format, as they never leave Ann’s house once they get there. Evening thus endorses a strange politics, bordering on nihilism. Nina spends much of the movie hemming and hawing about the implications of her pregnancy, but it’s not until the current day Lila (Meryl Streep) arrives that she discovers her course. This thanks to Lila’s truly weird observation, “Such mysterious creatures we are. But in the end, none of it matters.”
On one hand, Lila’s words invalidate Nina’s reservations about her future, not to mention the lifelong disappointment Ann feels about her missed opportunity with Harris. But they also let Ann off the hook for missing that opportunity, and justify Lila’s own choice to carry on with her marriage, which she admits made her “happy sometimes.”
So as the film moves towards its inevitable conclusion, its not so much the characters’ choices, but rather the spirit in which they make those choices that cause Evening to be such a failure. It’s almost a love letter to resignation. For a film so focused on remorse and desire, its distressing to see protagonists feel neither as they happily abandon their aspirations, settle for what’s expected of them, and buy into Lila’s deflating theory that the secret to fulfillment is to give up on yourself.