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Lajos Koltai's Evening, shot to script by Michael Cunningham and the original novel's author, Susan Minot, is a star-studded affair, with a total of seven actresses of varying but not inconsiderable celebrity, plus the daughter of one of them, who proves herself to be a chip off the old block. So make it eight. As for actors, however, there are only two, and they're both up-and-comers. In short, this is a woman's picture, of a kind that rarely gets made anymore. It is about memory, hope, fear, and frustration. in that order. And it is a very beautiful film.

A young and impecunious cabaret singer, Ann Grant (Claire Danes) arrives in Newport on a fine summer weekend in the early Fifties to be maid of honor at the wedding of her friend, Lila Wittenborn (Mamie Gummer). Even before she reaches the Wittenborn's gingerbready "summer cottage," Ann gets a lot of attention from Lila's brother, Buddy (Hugh Dancy), but it gradually emerges that romance is not a possibility here. Buddy is clever and drinks too much, and he doesn't think much of Lila's fiancÚ. In fact, he's sure that Lila is really in love with Harris Arden (Patrick Wilson), the son of the family's Newport housekeeper who is also a Korean vet and a physician. We're sure that Lila loves him, too. It doesn't take long for Ann to develop similar feelings, only in her case the feelings are reciprocated. The wedding weekend, steered imperturbably by Mrs Wittenborn (Glenn Close), plows on, oblivious of Lila's doubts and as oblivious as it can be of Buddy's intoxicated outbursts, which always promise to be more destructive than they are. After the wedding, Buddy appeals to Ann: can't the two of them run off to Greenwich Village and live a devil-may-care life? Since Buddy has just planted a big kiss on Harris's mouth, we do not expect Ann to be tempted. In fact, she has been through this before with Buddy, who presently makes a jerk of himself in a stunt involving a cliff. It's the last straw for Ann, who, we can tell (she never says anything until the last minute), thinks poorly of Lila's world. After slapping Buddy in the face, she asks Harris to take her away. He leads her to a small cabin in the woods - his hideaway. Unbeknownst to the two, Buddy drunkenly follows. There is an accident on the driveway. In the morning, the lovers return to the main house to find the illusion of well-bred paradise thoroughly shattered.

All of this is being remembered by a much older Ann as she lies dying in her bed at home, attended by her daughters Nina (Toni Collette) and Constance (Natasha Richardsdon), and a nurse (Eileen Atkins). Again, it gradually emerges that she has never told her daughters about the Wittenborn wedding, because when she raves that she and Harris murdered Buddy, they don't know who she's talking about. This doesn't bother Constance, but Nina rather resents it, as if her mother had no right to her secrets. But Constance is happily married, with two children, while Nina staggers from screw-up to unspecified screw-up. Her current boyfriend, Luc (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), wants to get married, but Nina's "still not sure."

The nurse asks Ann if there's anyone she would like her to call, and eventually a taxi pulls up to the house and Lila Ross (Meryl Streep) steps out. In a brief conversation with Nina, she practically turns the young woman's life around, but when she crawls into bed alongside Ann (in a gesture that parallels something that Ann did for her on that wedding weekend), we see that Lila has made peace with her life and wants to help Ann do the same.

People who don't like Evening will have a field day enumerating the apparent holes in its plot. Exposition and explanation don't seem to interest the screenwriters, who are more concerned with capturing the moods of social situations both in Lila's WASPy world and in the elderly Ann's long demise. The plot point that bothered me the most was Buddy's being both Lila's younger brother and a great chum of Ann's while all three attended the same college, something that, for the time and social setting, seems unlikely if not absolutely impossible (I'm remembering Radcliffe, and Barnard is still with us.) The film doesn't bother to say where the older Ann lives or why her old house is stuffed with old things. Why on earth does Harris get up in the middle of Lila's reception and join Ann onstage, where she is singing (at Lila's request) "Time After Time"? In the world of Evening, these are not interesting matters. What matters is what Ann remembers, and, later, what Lila remembers. (They remember the same things, but in very different accents.) Evening is about savoring experience, not analyzing it.

A film with such objectives is going to depend entirely on production values (among which I include the casting), and Evening does not disappoint. Ms Danes is winning as the easygoing friend who's uncomfortable in Lila's grand world. Ms Gummer, who is Ms Streep's daughter, registers shifts in consciousness as deftly as her mother. She is not quite as lovely, but she seems to possess the same formidable intelligence and control. Glenn Close makes her smallish part look very large; I'd say that her grande dame was somewhat camp if I hadn't met women just like Mrs Wittenborn. Hugh Dancy and Patrick Wilson seem perfectly cast. The fact that Mr Wilson has a much smaller part than Mr Dancy ingeniously injects into the film the regret that Ann feels when she looks back from her deathbed: we, too, want to see more of him.

As the older Ann, Vanessa Redgrave shows that she has evidently studied the dying. Her bravura performance of final decline is interrupted by moments of ecstasy in which she works her trademark hungry sorcery with unabated vigor. Ms Colette is wonderful, although she does seem to be replaying the defeated mother that she was in Sixth Sense. Ms Richardson is also wonderful. But the palm ultimately goes to Meryl Streep, whom we see over Ms Redgrave's shoulder in the bedroom scene. Her expression is a terrifying fusion of judgment and forgiveness, of agony and acceptance. She does very little, but what she does is as extraordinary as anything she has ever done.

Finally, the cars and the clothes in the wedding-weekend scenes and driven and worn by actors who by and large can't be old enough to remember them but who have been taught very well. The girls simper - ever so slightly - while they boys aim for heartiness. Lila has grown up with them, and she elects to spend her life with them. Buddy, Ann, and Harris don't belong, but in different ways that interfere with their attempts to connect with each other. The cars and the clothes and the Wittenborns' seaside house give Evening a glow that never dissolves into nostalgia. We are gently reminded, again and again, that we are watching was a very special weekend in Ann Grant's existence. It had little impact on her life thereafter, and by the time her daughters came along she had locked it away in - or from - her memory, until loosening morphine let it escape, to the the bewilderment of those now-grown daughters. Then Lila herself appears, and magically makes sense of Ann's romance. "We did what we needed to do," she tells Ann. To this proposition, Ann assents. There are no mistakes in life when we do what we need to do. (June 2007)

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