Like Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, Evening‘s pseudo-intellectual tone hardly disguises its presumptions about female identity. Is it coincidence that the structure of both films is so similar or has Michael Cunningham—opportunistically, maybe even insanely—adapted Susan Minot’s 1999 novel for the screen, with her full support and collaboration, to conform to his snooty view of the world? Made by dilettantes, for dilettantes, the film might be considered a gay man’s fetish art—another opportunity for the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer to flaunt his facile understanding of female torment, grotesque class condescension, superfluous preoccupation with time, and reduction of gay experience. “We are mysterious creatures,” says a cosmetically-aged Meryl Streep toward the end of Evening, not so much summarizing the point of the film as she is diagnosing Cunningham’s naïve understanding of female suffering.
For a film that tritely excavates the banal thesis statement that “your first mistake is like your first love,” it’s almost fitting that Evening begins as a nightmare. For Ann Lord (Vanessa Redgrave), it is really a hallucination, but for audiences there’s almost no excuse for the CGI-enhanced New England landscape that separates the old woman from the boat on which her younger self (played by Claire Danes) takes a nap, peering at the regal older dame from the ostensible safety net of the past. Though her back is to the camera, Redgrave is instantly recognizable, but the attention this uniquely expressive performer commands does not negate the way her talents are wasted by director Lajos Koltai (Fateless). Think back to the way Ken Russell had Redgrave contort her way through the delirious, provocative religious tableaus of The Devils and the unimaginativeness with which Koltai lazily props the actress before what is—no more, no less—a laughable facsimile of a harlequin romance cover becomes especially repellent. The only thing missing is Fabio.
Redgrave’s Ann drifts toward death, stunning her two grown, distinctly obnoxious daughters, Constance (Natasha Richardson) and Nina (Toni Collette), with fits of delirium, which consist of muttering a strange man’s name aloud, picturing her night nurse (Eileen Atkins) in a fancy evening gown, and giddily chasing a butterfly down the stairs and straight out of the house—though unfortunately not into moving traffic. These scenes evoke the awful present-day framing devices that bog down Clint Eastwood’s otherwise exquisite adaptation of The Bridges of Madison Country, before you realize Cunningham is using them to illustrate how his diminutive view of gender identity knows no bounds. Ann isn’t a woman so much as a conceit, and her tellingly named girls (one a responsible bore, the other a wild bohemian) suggest gene splices—each cut from one extreme of their mother’s polarizing but hardly complex personality.
In the past, young Ann, who is “prone to inappropriate apparel” (she gets her shoes in the village—Greenwich Village, that is!), arrives in Newport for her friend Lila’s (Mamie Gummer) wedding. Attached to her side is Lila’s brother Buddy (Hugh Dancy), a lush and would-be writer whose behavior, like the impossibly saturated green grass and blue sea outside his parents’ home, constitutes a show of denial. Like Ed Harris’s Richard in The Hours (and, to a certain extent, Dallas Roberts’s Jonathan from the equally vile A Home at the End of the World), Buddy is just another vessel through which Cunningham pompously hawks the same self-pitying view of gay struggle. The subtext here is so flagrant it stops being subtext: Buddy, ashamed of his affection for Harris (Patrick Wilson), takes out his aggression on the phoniness of his family, which includes an embarrassing caricature of a society mother essayed by Glenn Close, whose hairline is pulled so far back drag queens everywhere will be left speechless.
Cunningham shamelessly crashes Minot’s story (Buddy aspires to Hemingway, Shakespeare, and Fitzgerald, just as Cunningham is still gunning to write his own To the Lighthouse), allowing his ego and woe-is-us political agenda to interfere with what could have been an exquisite study of male-female relations defined by the tides of time. Characters are reduced to cardboard types, and just as Ann is callously defined entirely by what she did (or, rather, didn’t do) with Harris during Lila’s wedding, so is her object of affection seen only as a fetish object. It probably goes unsaid that, through Harris’s relationship to the Wittenborn children, Cunningham does not strive for the intricate study of class collision that enriches great novels like James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Ian McEwan’s Atonement, settling for gilded, soap-opera triteness.
Cunningham stresses Harris’s social position and Lila and Buddy’s love for him but doesn’t go very deep into how their childhood relationship and class difference may affect them as adults. Harris may have been the son of the family’s former housekeeper, but he is now a doctor, and it would appear that his upward mobility makes him an acceptable suitor for one of Wittenborn’s children, but because Lila is homely and gay marriage isn’t legal yet in Rhode Island, Harris’s whirlwind romance with Ann, capped with a slumming fuck session inside the servant’s house he once shared with his mother (it’s a miracle he isn’t introduced shirtlessly hoisting hay and drinking a cola), doesn’t register as an attempt to reject the Wittenborn family’s upper-class values. His class is as trivial an aspect to the story as Ann’s singing ability—airless details meant to distract us from the fact that the couple’s scarcely profound interest in each other is really only a matter of looks. Perhaps appropriately, Cunningham’s storytelling is a pathological show of superficiality.