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‘Evening’ an all-star soap opera

Enjoy some stellar acting from Streep and Redgrave, but don’t expect depth. By John Hartl

Positioned as the prestige film of the summer, “Evening” features a stellar cast that just won’t quit: Toni Collette and Natasha Richardson as sisters, Claire Danes and Mamie Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter) as school chums, Glenn Close and Barry Bostwick as the Gummer character’s parents, Hugh Dancy as an unhinged rich boy, and Patrick Wilson as Harris Arden, the heartthrob who fascinates most of them.

Unfortunately, the narrative doesn’t really start to click until the final scenes between Meryl Streep (as an older version of Lila, the character her daughter plays) and Vanessa Redgrave (as an older version of Ann, Danes’ role). The intensity of the Streep/Redgrave connection is so powerful that you may find yourself nodding along with their soothing but hard-to-buy rationalizations for the mistakes they’ve made.

The storyline, adapted by Michael Cunningham from Susan Minot’s novel, is designed as a mystery based on the highly unlikely notion that Ann would never have mentioned Harris, the love of her life, to her daughters. But now she’s dying, and she’s babbling about Harris and his friend, Buddy (Dancy), who died young, supposedly because of their actions.

Is she making this up? Could her pain relievers be the reason for the sudden fixation on two men from her past? A night nurse (Eileen Atkins) says she could be hallucinating — or not — but Ann holds on to her obsession, and through a series of flashbacks we gradually discover her big secret.

Switching back and forth between two periods, the 1950s and the 1990s, the Hungarian director Lajos Koltai (“Fateless”) handles his English-language debut with considerable skill. Cinematographer Gyula Pados gives the picture a glossy look, heightened by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek’s dreamy music. It’s not their fault that the story seems contrived and the characters rather hollow.

It’s also not the fault of the actors. Collette and Richardson sometimes succeed in transcending the rather soapy material, and Danes and Gummer come close to creating a credible college-age version of their characters’ friendship. Close provides a welcome touch of comic relief, while Dancy brings some restless charm to Buddy, a hard-drinking character who seems to be experiencing a nervous breakdown on the eve of his sister’s unfortunate wedding.

But Buddy, whose party tricks include inventing famous lines that were first written by Hemingway and Dickens, quickly becomes an annoying presence: an unfunny drunk. When Ann reads him the riot act, you can only wonder why she took so long. Wilson’s Harris is similarly limited: a handsome doctor who too often seems remote and blank.

The screenplay builds to the revelation that nothing really matters, even if you’ve married the wrong person. Not only is this notion debatable; it undercuts the movie’s romantic impulses. Especially weightless is a scene that echoes “The Way We Were,” with Ann and Harris meeting by accident on the street many years later. If they’re supposed to be star-struck lovers, why do we feel so little about their brief reunion?