The film alternates between two time periods, the 1950s and the present, in which a dying Ann Grant Lord (Vanessa Redgrave) reflects on her past. Her confusing comments about people she never mentioned before leave her daughters, reserved Constance (Natasha Richardson) and restless Nina (Toni Collette), wondering if their mother is delusional.
As a young woman in her early twenties, cabaret singer Ann (Claire Danes) arrives at the spacious Newport, Rhode Island, home of her best friend Lila Wittenborn (Mamie Gummer), who is on the verge of getting married to Karl Ross (Timothy Kiefer). Lila's brother (and Ann's college friend) Buddy (Hugh Dancy) introduces her to Harris Arden (Patrick Wilson), a young doctor and the son of a former family servant. Buddy tells Ann his sister always has adored Harris, and expresses his concern that she's marrying another man out of a sense of duty rather than love. Inebriated, Buddy passes out, and as Ann and Harris chat they find themselves bonding.
On Lila's wedding day, she confesses to Ann that she confronted Harris with her feelings for him and he rebuffed her, so she goes along with the ceremony as planned and marries Karl. At the reception, at Lila's request, Ann sings a song and is joined on stage by Harris. Afterwards Buddy, drunk again, confronts the two about their growing closeness. Then he unexpectedly kisses Harris. As Lila prepares to depart with her new husband, Ann offers to take the bride away with her, but Lila refuses and leaves for her honeymoon.
Buddy admits to Ann he's had a crush on Harris since his childhood, though he also claims not to be "that way" - he denies that this would be okay as Ann assures him. He then changes the subject, confessing he has loved Ann ever since their college days, offering as proof a note she once sent him he has kept in his pocket ever since. Ann is unconvinced.
By the sea the younger guests dance drunkenly and dive into the sea from a clifftop: Buddy joins in but fails to surface, prompting a panicked search. When Buddy reappears at the top of the cliff, Ann expresses her anger at the prank and berates Buddy for repressing his sexual orientation and building her up as his true love. She storms off and she and Harris slip off to his secret hideaway, where the two make love.
Buddy, in search of the couple, stumbles into the road and is hit by a car. His friends find him, but too late to save his life. The following morning, Ann and Harris, oblivious to what transpired the night before, jokingly consider sailing away, but at the Wittenborn house they hear the tragic news of Buddy's death.
In the present day, Lila (Meryl Streep) arrives at Ann's bedside to comfort her and reminisce. Ann recalls a day when she ran into Harris in the street in New York City. By then she had one daughter and was on the verge of moving to Los Angeles, and he was married with a son. He intimated he still loved her before the two exchanged cordial goodbyes.
As Lila leaves, she tells Nina about Harris and reassures her that her mother did not make any mistakes in her life. Nina sits with Ann, who encourages her daughter to have a happy life. Nina finally musters the courage to tell her boyfriend Luc she is pregnant with their child. An ecstatic Luc proudly announces the news to Constance and promises he always will be there for Nina. Their joy is interrupted by Ann's nurse, who urges the women to rush to their mother's bedside to bid her farewell.
The 1950sClaire Danes as Ann Grant
Mamie Gummer as Lila Wittenborn
Patrick Wilson as Harris Arden
Hugh Dancy as Buddy Wittenborn
Glenn Close as Mrs. Wittenborn
Barry Bostwick as Mr. Wittenborn
The PresentVanessa Redgrave as Ann Grant Lord
Toni Collette as Nina Mars
Natasha Richardson as Constance Haverford
Meryl Streep as Lila Wittenborn Ross
Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Luc
David Call as Pip
Eileen Atkins as Mrs. Brown, the Night Nurse
Kara F. Doherty as Chloe
Additional cast membersProduction Design as Caroline Hanania
Art Direction as Jordan Jacobs
Set Decoration as Catherine Davis
Costume Design as Ann Roth
Despite a well-established cast, Evening earned mostly negative reviews from critics and currently holds a 27% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 127 reviews.
Manohla Dargis of The New York Times said, "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."
In the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle observed, "The film arrives at a pessimistic and almost nihilistic view of life as something not very important - and then invites us to take strength and comfort in the notion. It's not what you'd expect, and it's certainly not the typical message. It might be the most interesting thing about the picture."
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone rated the film 2½ out of a possible four stars and commented, "the actors . . . provide flashes of brilliance. Hugh Dancy scores as the plot's catalyst for tragedy. And Claire Danes is stellar as the young Ann . . . [Mamie] Gummer proves her talent is her own in a star-is-born performance that signals an exceptional career ahead."
In the St. Petersburg Times, Steve Persall graded the film C and added, "Strong performances and an author's weak backbone make Evening a curious mistake . . . [it] is memorable only for lovely period designs and for casting mothers and daughters to ensure better continuity."
Justin Chang of Variety said, "The more immediate problem with this ambitious, elliptical film is Koltai and editor Allyson C. Johnson's difficulty in establishing a narrative rhythm, as the back-and-forth shifts in time that seemed delicately free-associative on the page are rendered with considerably less grace onscreen. In ways reminiscent of Stephen Daldry's film of The Hours, the telling connections between past and present feel calculated rather than authentically illuminating."
In Time, Richard Schickel said the film "represents perhaps the greatest diva round-up in modern movie history . . . Wow, you might think, how bad can that be? To which one responds, after two lugubrious hours in their company, really awful. Rarely have so many gifted women labored so tastefully to bring forth such a wee, lockjawed mouse . . . This may in part because it was Michael Cunningham, author of the book The Hours, another stupefying exercise in unspoken angst, who was hired to punch up the script Susan Minot was trying to make out of her novel. They share screenplay credit for Evening, but even in the press kit you can sense her loathing for his work. He's sort of Henry James without the cojones and definitely the most constipated sensibility the literary community has lately been in awe of. But I suspect that the director, Lajos Koltai, a Hungarian, has even more to do with the film's inertness."
Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly rated Evening as the second worst movie of 2007 (behind I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry).