Sustained in death by the memory of one great love

Ill-matched actresses, a stuffy script and lackluster memories ruin this screen-adaptation of Susan Minot's 'Evening'

By MANOHLA DARGISNY  /  Times News Service , New York

Fri, Sep 14, 2007 - Page 17

At first, second and final glance, Susan Minot's Evening, a claustrophobic 1998 novel about a woman in her 60s remembering the days and few torrid nights of her life while slowly, very slowly dying, doesn't seem as if it would translate easily to the big screen. It hasn't. Stuffed with actors of variable talent, burdened with false, labored dialogue and distinguished by a florid visual style better suited to fairy tales and greeting cards, this miscalculation underlines what can happen when certain literary works meet the bottom line of the movies. It also proves that not every book deserves its own film.

That bottom line might explain why Claire Danes was cast to play the unripened young Ann in the 1950s, the same character Vanessa Redgrave ushers from this mortal coil in the present. Danes and Redgrave bear no resemblance to each other - they're strangers in look, voice, gesture and screen presence - and neither do the ill-matched Natasha Richardson and Toni Collette, who play Ann's daughters. Among other things, Danes looks agonizingly uncomfortable, as she now often does on screen; Redgrave, by contrast, gives the impression that she'd rather eat a grand piano than surrender the spotlight. Her character may be dying, but she's dying importantly, with flattering lighting and not a pearl of drool.

But Evening is not about sickness and dreadful death. It's about how some words that pass muster on the page can sound terribly precious coming out of a real person's mouth. It's also about how modest projects like this depend on name actors to get made, which probably explains why Glenn Close pops up in the film as one of those 1950s matriarchs. Close breathes life and a hint of camp into a cliche, as does the equally fleet and fleeting Meryl Streep.

Adapted by Minot and Michael Cunningham (The Hours), the film scales back the novel's ambitious design, notably by jettisoning Ann's imaginary (or spiritual) encounters with her one great love. In the film, the dying Ann drifts between the morphine-fogged present, where her daughters pick at each other and their barely healed wounds, and the hothouse refuge of memory. First among her reminiscences are the few days in the 1950s that she spent under the stars and inside a magical shack with Harris (Patrick Wilson), a strapping young doctor with sensitive eyes and apparently even more sensitive hands whom she met at Lila's wedding. (Streep's daughter Mamie Gummer plays the young Lila.)

The film also ditches one of the novel's central female characters and invests a delicate young man named Buddy with the kind of uncertain sexual desire that Montgomery Clift would have conveyed effortlessly and which the young British actor Hugh Dancy botches. This isn't wholly his fault. Dancy has to try to animate a wheezing stereotype and deliver dialogue laden with forced allusions and a sense of doom so foreboding it might as well come accompanied by Chopin's funeral march. The added complication of Buddy's confused sexuality and the drama it provokes only makes the young Ann, an already unappealing, callow presence in the novel, seem even less attractive and more selfish on screen.

On her deathbed Ann recalls when her younger self first discovered love, or at least the sort of five-alarm sex that inspires Minot to reach for words like "ripping," "clashing," "hammering," "scaling" and "diving." In death Ann floats through the watery memories of youth that nominally sustained her in life, but it is a life strikingly and cripplingly absent any sense of true, blood-warmed experience. It's no wonder that the Hungarian director Lajos Koltai, whose last film was the very good and affecting Holocaust drama Fateless, sinks before he can swim (or dive). He has tried to instill a sense of wonderment into a kitsch romance. He fails badly, but in this he has plenty of company.