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"Where's Harris?" Ann asks.
Her grown daughters are puzzled. They've never heard the name before. Yet it's the name Ann says as she's drifting in and out of consciousness, sailing between the past and present, imagination and death.
"Harris," Ann croaks in a moment of lucidity, "was my first mistake. Your first mistake is like your first kiss; you never forget it." And then she offers up another mysterious, shocking, nugget: "Harris and I killed Buddy."
Mrs. Brown, a sage night nurse, tells the daughters that Harris and Buddy might be real, might not be. "You never really know," she says.
But Ann knows. Through her fever, she floats back to a time nearly ancient, filled with curvaceous cars and ruby-red lipstick. It's the early 1950s, when Sinatra was cool, men wore ties to dinner and everyone smoked like chimneys.
Ann is a hip bohemian—a singer who performs for "tourists and drunks"—filled with hope and promise. She's the maid of honor at her best friend's wedding, so she spends what should have been a splendid weekend at the Wittenborns' luxurious Newport vacation "cottage" by the sea. But Lila Wittenborn is marrying a man she doesn't love. And her brother, Buddy, wants to stop the wedding—if he can manage it through his alcohol-induced fog.
The real focal point of the story isn't the wedding, though. It's Harris, now a doctor from modest roots. "Everyone loved Harris," Lila reflects years later. And it's true. Lila's loved him since she was a girl. Ann falls in love with him. And Buddy finds himself attracted to him, too.
Buddy is also madly in love with Ann. For four years, he's kept in his pocket a meaningless note she wrote to him, the ink faded with age and abuse—and as Ann and Harris begin to explore their feelings for one another, Buddy reacts badly. The consequences, safe to say, are tragic.
Evening is not just a love story; it's a whole mess of 'em. But while romantic love is the crux of the plot, it really celebrates friendship and family far more.
Constance and Nina, Ann's two daughters, bicker and squabble when they're not hovering over their dying mother. But they love each other and, at the end, walk to their mother's room hand-in-hand. Unmarried, Nina discovers she's pregnant and tells Constance, "I can't imagine getting rid of it. I don't think I could do that." But she struggles with the decision until she's convinced that being a mom is a priceless experience.
"You could be a great mother," Constance tells her. "You really love your kids, don't you?" Nina answers. Constance smiles. "More than anything."
Adding a masculine voice to the mix, Nina's boyfriend, the baby's father, pledges his undying loyalty and commitment to her and their child.
When the story slips into the past, it's friendship that's on display. Ann, Lila, Harris and Buddy would do nearly anything for each other. For most of the film, Ann and Harris keep close tabs on the perpetually drunk Buddy. They make sure he's safe and escort him away from polite company before he makes too big a fool of himself. Ann offers to whisk a sobbing Lila away from the house before the wedding, but when Lila asks her instead to be a dutiful maid of honor, she grants her wish with grace and devotion.
Though Evening has plenty of moral ambiguity—more on that later—it also seems to acknowledge, and even applaud, the fact that sometimes following one's heart isn't the best way to go: Following one's head can be just as valid and that life, no matter what decisions we make, will have its share of ups and downs. This is a refreshingly honest take in a movie world dominated by a Disney-esque sense of whatever feels right and makes you happy at the moment is surely the best path.
[Spoiler Warning] Though she doesn't love her fiancé in that wild and crazy way that Ann so strongly recommends, Lila tells her friend that he's "a good man and he's going to be a wonderful husband." She gets married and stays married, and she tells Ann that it made her both happy and unhappy. Ann, despite riding through a handful of rocky marriages, chooses to let her longed-for singing career slip away as she focuses on her daughters.
On her deathbed, Ann is visited by Lila. Ann asks whether one of them should've done the impulsive, romantic thing—whether at least one of them should've married Harris.
"I think," Lila says, "we did what we needed to do."
"Yeah," Ann says with a smile. "I suppose we did."
Lila is married in an old-fashioned church where the pew seats have doors. Ann, in flashback mode, sings her daughters a faith-tinged song as their spaghetti dinner goes untended: "God bless the moon and God bless me/And God bless the somebody I want to see."
The most spiritual figure in Evening is Mrs. Brown who, every now and then, transforms in Ann's eyes into a kind of guardian angel, complete with a sparkling white gown. Near death, Ann appears to have an out-of-body experience.
Ann and Harris make their way to a ramshackle cottage where the two start kissing and Ann strips off Harris' shirt. Later, we see them presumably naked but mostly covered with a blanket.
Buddy gets a smooch in on Harris, too—a quick, smeared affair that takes a half-second. Later, Ann angrily tells Buddy to go on and "kiss men if you want to, horrify your parents. Just be a man about it." And indeed, despite the time period, neither Ann nor Harris see anything wrong with what seems to be Buddy's emerging homosexuality.
Lila confesses to Ann that she threw herself at Harris the day before her wedding, offering to do essentially "anything" Harris wanted. Mrs. Wittenborn frets over a wedding seating chart, saying all the guests are "either mortal enemies, have had disastrous affairs or both."
Low-cut dresses adorn a number of women. Nudity is isolated to activities on "The Plunge," an ocean cliff from which, traditionally, members of the wedding party fling themselves off of after the official festivities have concluded. One naked man is shown from the rear as he jumps in. Before following suit, a woman strips down to her era underwear.
[Spoiler Warning] After Buddy tricks his friends into thinking he's drowned, Ann slaps him across the face. Minutes later, Buddy drunkenly staggers across a road and is hit by a car. We see his head smash against the side of the windshield and his body crumple to the ground. Members of the wedding party later stumble across his barely breathing form. His face is crusted with blood.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word. God's and Jesus' names are misused a half-dozen times. God's is mixed up with "d--n" twice. A smattering of other curse words include "b--tard," "h---" and "a--."
Drug and Alcohol Content
When Ann stumbles across Buddy pouring himself a drink, she asks him whether he's drinking a bit too early in the day.
"This is Newport," he retorts. "It starts at noon."
And he's not kidding. He's almost always shown either drinking or drunk.
Though moviegoers will clearly see Buddy's drinking as a problem, the people around him are almost bewilderingly tolerant. His parents and guests calmly listen to his rambling speeches. Ann pours him drinks and accepts his drunkenness as part of his quirky character. She and Harris put Buddy to bed and watch out for him, but neither tells him to stop.
Buddy smokes, too, as do most of the folks shown in the 1950s flashbacks. Thus, this is a film completely awash in booze and hazy with smoke—not glamorized, not belittled, just shown as an integral part of a rich and pampered world.
Other Negative Elements
"What if there were no such things as mistakes?"
Mrs. Brown asks that of Ann, and the question lies at the heart of Evening. The film concludes there are no such things—a point it unintentionally refutes by making a few of its own.
It features beautiful cinematography and wonderful acting: Three of Evening's actresses—Vanessa Redgrave, Glenn Close and Meryl Streep—have a combined 25 Academy Award wins or nominations to their credit, and the young 'uns (meaning Claire Danes, Natasha Richardson and Mamie Gummer—the latter two being the daughters of Redgrave and Streep, respectively) hold their ground, too.
But Evening doesn't quite know how to swing that kind of theatrical heft. Is it a rumination on regret? An ode to motherhood? A creepy love quadrangle? Or is it all of the above? After all, the story is filled with characters uncertain about who they want to be, too.
[Spoiler Warning] Evening finally, uneasily and inconsistently settles on the "there are no mistakes" moral. But in so doing, it runs into issues. For Ann, the moral is a relief. Her life has been filled with so much regret that she began to feel like she was "made of wrongness." She's plagued with guilt. She didn't sing like she wanted to. She didn't marry the man she loved. But she comes to peace with the fact that raising two young daughters is a pretty good way to spend a life, that Buddy's death, in the end, wasn't her fault.
In truth, Ann made plenty of mistakes. Her mistakes were moral and ethical, active and passive. Her actions and non-actions did play a role in Buddy's death. (Though not nearly as big a role as Buddy's own bevy of mistakes did.) To say "there are no mistakes" seems to suggest that Buddy's death was unavoidable and therefore acceptable—and the world's host of ills equally unworthy of worry.
It feels good to watch Ann clear her conscience before she dies, but Evening misses the point. It confuses acceptance with grace, and that—more than the sexual misconduct or alcohol abuse—darkens the film with a gray sense of hopelessness.
"We're mysterious creatures, aren't we?" Lila says. "And, at the end, so much of it turns out not to matter."
But it does matter. Life matters. How we treat people matters. The decisions we make matter—and our mistakes matter. While Ann could only find peace in the excusing of her actions, a relationship with Christ allows us to find peace in knowing our mistakes, whatever they might be, have been not merely mitigated or navigated, but atoned for and forgiven. Evening, then, fades to black without coming close to finding any sort of real and true illumination, leaving us instead with the wistful words of a nightclub piano player: "Mistakes are beautiful, baby. Mistakes are part of the fun."
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Claire Danes as Young Ann; Vanessa Redgrave as Old Ann; Mamie Gummer as Young Lila; Meryl Streep as Old Lila; Patrick Wilson as Harris; Hugh Dancy as Buddy; Toni Collette as Nina; Natasha Richardson as Constance; Glenn Close as Mrs. Wittenborn; Eileen Atkins as Mrs. Brown
Lajos Koltai ( )