[Screen It]

(2007) (Vanessa Redgrave, Claire Danes) (PG-13)

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Drama: A terminally ill woman remembers her past as she wonders if she let the perfect man get away fifty years ago.
Ann Lord (VANESSA REDGRAVE) is a terminally ill woman near the end of her life. Cared for by the night nurse (EILEEN ATKINS), she goes in and out of making sense, talking about Harris being her first mistake, and that the two of them killed someone named Buddy. All of which comes as news to her adult daughters, Nina Mars (TONI COLLETTE) and Constance Haverford (NATASHA RICHARDSON).

While the latter has led a mostly happy life with a husband and kids, Nina has drifted from one job and boyfriend to the next, meaning she isn't sure she can commit to her latest beau, Luc (EBON MOSS-BACHRACH). Thus, and thinking that her mom is experiencing the same sort of regret about life choices just like her, Nina tries to figure out if the people her mom mentioned are real, and if they are, how and when they fit into her life.

Fifty years ago, Ann Grant (CLAIRE DANES) is a young woman arriving at the coastal New England home of her best friend, Lila Wittenborn (MAMIE GUMMER). The latter is about to get married, with Ann to serve as her bridesmaid. That's all while Lila's high society mother Mrs. Wittenborn (GLENN CLOSE), focuses on the seating assignments for the reception, and Lila's boozing playboy type brother Buddy (HUGH DANCY) thinks she's marrying the wrong man. That's because he, Lila and eventually Ann, are all smitten with Harris Arden (PATRICK WILSON), the son of the family's former housekeeper who's grown up into a dashing doctor.

As the family dynamics play out over the next few days leading up to the wedding, Ann finds herself worried about Buddy but drawn to Harris, events that lead to those memories on her death bed so many years later, wondering about the decisions she made so long ago.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
And now, the end is near,
And so I face the final curtain.
My friend, I'll say it clear,
I'll state my case, of which I'm certain.

I've lived a life that's full.
I've traveled each and every highway.
And more, much more than this,
I did it my way.

Frank Sinatra "My Way"

It's been said that at the sudden end of a person's life, their cumulative experience on Earth flashes before their eyes like a sped-up, greatest hits and failures montage. For those facing a long decline due to illness or just old age, however, there's more time to reflect on one's life, including all of the successes and mistakes.

Perhaps due to human nature, and contrary to what Ol' Blue Eyes sang, however, most people seem to focus most of their attention on their regrets, both of things they did and didn't do. It's the "woulda, coulda, shoulda" syndrome that doesn't do much good for anyone -- be that the person looking back or those who have to hear the "if only" stories -- and it's the driving force behind "Evening."

In it, Vanessa Redgrave plays a terminally ill woman on her deathbed who, through memory and/or her brain starting to lose its ability to distinguish between reality and the imagined, mentions several names from the past. The first is someone named Harris, who she deems to be her first mistake in life. The second is Buddy, someone she says she and Harris killed.

The latter alerts her adult daughter played by Toni Collette, mainly because she and Natasha Richardson's sister character don't remember their mom doing time for murder. The night nurse (Eileen Atkins) thinks it's probably just a case of near-death hallucinations, but since Nina's life is already filled with its share of mistakes and related regrets, she wants to find out if she inherited the WCS gene.

Unfortunately, her familial detective work is limited to asking a few questions of dear old mom whenever she's awake and lucid. And since that wouldn't make for very exciting cinematic storytelling, cinematographer turned director Lajos Koltai unfortunately has little resort but to turn to the old convention of wrapping a contemporary story with various flashbacks from the past.

I'll readily admit that this is one of my least favorite filmmaking techniques as it robs both sides of the story (past and present) of necessary dramatic momentum thanks to the constant switching back and forth between plot lines. Of course, had Koltai -- who works from Susan Minot and Michael Cunningham's adaptation of Minot's novel -- played up the hallucination, dream, or "I just made up the story to mess with the kids" angle, all of it might have been more tolerable. As it stands, however, there's never any doubt about how the structure and story will play out (if in doubt, check out most any other deathbed drama "chick flick" for all of the necessary signposts).

The bigger issue, however, is that everything feels contrived, maudlin and superficial. Having recently experienced a slow and excruciating death in my immediate family, I was expecting the film to leave me an emotional wreck due to a similar illness and the reflection back on one's life near the end of it. Instead, most everything, from the expected and "surprise" deaths to the stymied romances, longing, angst and more, left me emotionally distant from any of the proceedings.

That's not to say, however, that the performances are in any way bad. Featuring a stellar cast -- Vanessa Redgrave, Glenn Close, Meryl Streep, Toni Collette, and more -- the work is solid from top to bottom, although not quite to awards season caliber, which probably partially explains its late June rather than end of the year release (when most Oscar bait arrives on the scene). And the film sports a sumptuous look in between the credits, obviously due to Koltai's well-trained eye about everything to do with the camera.

None of that, however, can make up for the profound-sounding dialogue and emotional issues that either don't connect on an emotional level with the viewer or simply don't ring true. With this sort of tale, you want the real sugar, not some artificial sweetener that too obviously leaves a bad taste in one's mouth, heart, and mind.

Coupled with the obtrusive split storytelling structure, the result is a film that just feels far too inert and stilted. While not awful, "Evening" is slow and boring enough that it might just have viewers contemplating their own regrets, including spending the time and/or money to sit down in front of this. The film rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed June 18, 2007 / Posted June 29, 2007

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