Remembering is a novel's business, and notoriously difficult to translate to the screen. Only Raoul Ruiz's dazzlingly free adaptation of Proust's Time Regained (whose frame of a dying man trying to unscramble his memories Minot lifted more or less wholesale) has come close to replicating the creative role of recall — sparked by fear, desire, and regret — in giving shape and significance to the experiential jumble that we call the past.
Koltai's fat resume as the celebrated cinematographer of movies from Mephisto to (eek!) Home for the Holidays seems of little help here. Neither is his directing debut Fateless, a brilliant but resolutely linear movie about a Hungarian Jewish boy wandering through Nazi concentration camps. Lost in translation aside from a few allusions to the mind's compulsion to condense and conflate the past — Harris visits the sick room periodically, and Ann's night nurse (an underused Eileen Atkins) appears to her patient in a white satin evening dress — Evening boils down to a flat back-and-forth between old Ann (Vanessa Redgrave, prone and wheezy) and young Ann (a frighteningly thin Claire Danes), who we see in prolonged flashbacks screwing up her life with a handsome doctor at the wedding in scenic Rhode Island.
However ably played by the equally scenic Patrick Wilson, Harris is more studmuffin than madeleine, which makes it odd that Koltai has cut out the novel's scads of steamy sex. Odder still that Minot, who's credited as co-screenwriter with Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours and a connoisseur of defiantly inadequate mothers, agreed to that. You have to wonder, too, what she thought of Cunningham's major plot surgery, which corrals just about every hot-eyed young thing in the movie to fall in love with the undeserving Harris, playing up hints of incestuous attraction and inserting a homoerotic subtext involving a painfully miscast Hugh Dancy as a rich young drunk with forthcoming tragedy in his puppy eyes.
Stripped of the rhythmic lilt of Minot's prose and her delicate probe into the treacheries that time and memory work on our lives, Evening tips over into farce, leaving us unsure whether Harris is Ann's great love or a complete waste of her time and emotional energy. That's a real question, and it comes as a relief when Meryl Streep, as Lila the Elder, blows into town for a final farewell and some sensible advice for the flailing women gathered at Ann's bedside. As the cautionary tale of mothers and daughters it negligently aspires to be, Evening is strictly old news. But if nothing else, a good time can be had marveling at the rosy incandescence that Streep shares with her daughter Mamie Gummer, who plays Lila as a young woman. It's not yet clear what kind of an actress Gummer will be — as the bride she has little to do but make cow eyes at a man who isn't her groom. But she has one big thing going for her: Like her famous ma, she's unquenchably lit from within.