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MOVIE REVIEW

Stars illuminate 'Evening'

Family drama oscillates between the past and present

"Evening" is the sort of film certain moviegoers say they want more of during the summer and never get. Well, now they've got it: a tony period drama full of the most esteemed stars. The film's ads promise nothing less than "the Greatest Actresses of Our Time." Redgrave . Streep . Close . Atkins . (Hopefully, someone is keeping the news from Judi Dench, who is not here.)

The film is being released as an antidote to summer super-productions. Nothing in "Evening" blows up. None of the costumes are made of Lycra, and the acting is the only special effect that matters. But isn't this a kind of blockbuster, a ladies-night "Ocean's Thirteen"? Regardless what you call it, "Evening" delivers these women in top form. Were Vanessa Redgrave's performance presented in Dolby Digital Surround it would blow you to the back of the theater. Rarely has a knock at death's door been this vivid.

Between her stage work as Joan Didion in "The Year of Magical Thinking " and her bizarrely underappreciated performance as Peter O'Toole's ex in "Venus," Redgrave has been staring mortality in the face lately. In "Evening," which Lajos Koltai directed and Michael Cunningham and Susan Minot adapted from one of her novels of regret, Redgrave lies in a sickbed. She plays Ann Lord , a woman wracked with guilt over some awful secret from her past. Ann's outbursts about an old lover ("Harris!") bewilder her home-care nurse (Eileen Atkins ) and her daughters -- Natasha Richardson and Toni Collette (the movie even has the greatish actresses of our time). To explain Ann's agony, the film travels backward about 50 years to the scene of the alleged crime.

Really, all we're talking about is a WASP-y Newport, R.I., wedding, for which young Ann (Claire Danes) has schlepped all the way from Greenwich Village to sing a song. The bride, Lila Wittenborn (Mamie Gummer ), is Ann's best college friend, and she's terrified that she's marrying the wrong fellow. Since the man she truly covets -- the aforementioned Harris -- is played by Patrick Wilson , I'd say Lila is right to second-guess herself. But she should take a number since almost everybody on the Wittenborns' seaside property (Glenn Close plays the matriarch) eventually finds him scrumptious, too, including Ann. Even Lila's emotionally rickety brother, Buddy (Hugh Dancy ), harbors a crush that's evident the minute he introduces Ann to Harris, a doctor and family friend.

Wilson seems content to play these sorts of ornamental roles. He's like Grace Kelly, if Grace Kelly were a high school quarterback. It would have been more interesting for Wilson and the electric Dancy to switch parts. Then again, Harris's beauty has to make an impression that leaves a girl reeling all the way to her deathbed. And it's Wilson who is cursed with that gift.

Rather effortlessly, the film oscillates between the wedding weekend's melodrama and the theater of Redgrave's unvarnished face. But what happens in Newport almost doesn't seem worthy of wherever Ann's eyes are wistfully gazing as she drifts in and out of coherence.

The setting of Minot's book has been moved from Maine and the Dancy character has been bulked up until a triangle forms around him, Ann, and Harris. But what was special about the novel was the diverging friendship between young Ann and Lila, who embark on different paths through womanhood. The scenes between Danes and Gummer sitting up in bed talking about the decisions they're about to make have a human truth that's missing almost everywhere else in the movie. They're echoed almost erotically when Streep, as the older Lila, shows up at Redgrave's bedside during the seventh-inning stretch.

Whatever "Evening" is saying about life, death, and guilt isn't terribly new or interesting -- we live, we die, sometimes we pore over the highlights before we go. Wise old Ann gives her daughters -- and, by extension, us -- bromides we can take with us on the drive home. These sorts of reliable sentiments are just what some people come to these movies for.

But the most fascinating thing about the movie is its actorly constellation. Every day on the set must have felt like Take Your Daughter to Work Day. Redgrave, of course, is Richardson's mother. But you spend a lot of the film pondering the idea that Danes's coquettishness will, somehow, age into Redgrave's refinement and that Gummer will become her own mother -- Streep. That Close actually plays Gummer's mother is amazing since, with all respect to her dad, she looks the child Close and Streep might have produced -- a pellucid face loaded with points and angles.

David Hare adapted Cunningham's book "The Hours" into a film about the well-heeled, seemingly made for the well-heeled. Both movies specialize in a brand of idealized upscale soapiness: these are the suds of our lives. "Evening" is not as artistically oppressive as "The Hours." The anguish, in fact, is comparatively low. And Koltai, a cinematographer whose previous movie was the equally fluid Hungarian Holocaust drama "Fateless ," comfortably connects now to then without too many overbearing symbols or bogus transitions.

Still, not even a firm approach can rescue "Evening" from the enveloping thematic finery. It's a hopelessly classy piece of china.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

'Related'

Evening

Directed by: Lajos Koltai

Written by: Michael Cunningham and Susan Minot, adapted from Minot's novel

Starring: Vanessa Redgrave , Claire Danes , Toni Collette , Natasha Richardson , Eileen Atkins , Mamie Gummer , Meryl Streep , Hugh Dancy , Patrick Wilson, Glenn Close

At: Harvard Square

Running time: 118 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (some thematic elements, sexual material, a brief accident scene, and language)

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