The Reeler


June 28, 2007


Ms. Redgrave sends her regrets in melancholic, should-be melodrama

"The love of my life” is a curious phrase. Overblown and yet precise, we’re all expected to have one to show for ourselves, though to do so from any vantage point less certain than a deathbed may be asking for a good humbling. Looove of my liiiife. Though the concept can be explored in narrative (and in some form almost always is) to devastating dramatic effect, once it is spelled out we’re on entirely different terrain.

Evening, which bears little more than a passing resemblance to Susan Minot’s 1998 book of the same name, suffers from the same problem as a certain ex-boyfriend of mine: All emotion registers as melodrama, though in this case the flushed and flustered parts do not cohere into a melodramatic (i.e. generic) whole. Co-writer Michael Cunningham (The Hours) and director Lajos Koltai must have worked hard to make a film adaptation less subtle than Minot’s fever dream of death, regret, memory and passion, but the fulsome fix is in early on when a bedridden Ann (Vanessa Redgrave) declares to her fretting daughters (Natasha Richardson and Toni Collette) that a mysterious man named Harris was the you-know-who of her you-know-what.

One of the novel’s subtleties does make a valiant appearance toward the end of Evening, with a return to Ann’s bed and a visitor from the past; the ensuing discussion touches on the oddness of time, the amazing and horrible revelations it has in store for us. For Ann it is realizing that the thing that meant the most to her was not a husband, or child, or even the sound of her own voice, but a fella she boned after a wedding 40 years ago.

What does it all mean? Party frocks, pinked cheeks and peachy lighting are mobilized in service of that question, and the effort to resurrect Ann’s past in flashback, specifically the weekend that she met Harris at the wedding of her friend Lila (Mamie Gummer). Played by Claire Danes as a young woman, Ann passes for bohemian among the tony Newport set (brilliantly epitomized by Glenn Close as mother-of-the-bride, pinched and powdered free of all emotion, all melodrama) because she wears gauzy tops and bypasses the setting lotion. Siblings Lila and Buddy (Hugh Dancy) are bumped up from their minor roles in the book, and both have something of a crush on their former maid’s son, Dr. Harris Arden (Patrick Wilson). Buddy reserves his true affections for Ann, though once she gets a load of the good doctor in some well-cut chinos, all hope is lost and she is set on the course to make what the aged Ann refers to as “my first mistake.”

Just why this attraction is deemed a mistake is never clear, aside from its obvious service to the script’s gold-threaded lesson that there are no mistakes, or rather, mistakes are beautiful, and that despite all appearances, a deathbed is no place for regrets. The weekend affair could conceivably be called a mistake had Cunningham and Minot not relieved Harris of the novel’s inconvenient fiancée and the ill-timed pregnancy, which removes any potential for a future with Ann. Here there is no real barrier, and their bond’s unexplained failure to thrive is one of several instances where emotional nuance proves out of reach and a shot of melodrama -- loaded looks, portentous cuts, drunken speeches, incestuous and homoerotic overtones, juvie hijinx right out of Rebel Without a Cause -- is used to help the narrative medicine go down. It’s hard to blame Koltai, who managed to make something of a love story about the Holocaust with his previous film Fateless, for going big and using treacle to spackle together the film’s insistent themes. He certainly couldn’t rely on his romantic leads -- who may have shown more chemistry swapping khakis and hoofing in their underpants for a GAP commercial -- to bear them out.

“You are what you love, not what loves you,” goes my favorite line from another extremely (and more successfully) loose translation of a literary source, Adaptation. And judging from the disconnect between the affair as it is remembered and the impact it had on Ann, we are meant to understand that it’s a mantra she has lived, if unknowingly. Both the character of the night nurse (Eileen Atkins) and the later Lila (Meryl Streep) offer a practical antidote to Ann’s mooning, balming her regrets even as they wonder over their meager source.

At 25 Ann has the wisdom to see that Buddy is not in love with her, but rather an idea of her, yet a lifetime later she is unable to diagnose the same affect in herself. The novel rejects the idea that no one can change another person, insisting that it is only through other people that we ever change. Had it not been so preoccupied with the convenient transitive properties of melodrama and giving each of its formidable actresses their big scenes, Evening may have had a shot at mining the bittersweet vein of perversity -- time’s littlest, meanest joke on our hearts -- feeding this truth: that often the people who change us the most remain oblivious, unknowing and uncaring of what they have done.

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