A gathering of great actresses, to no good end

Meryl Streep (left), Vanessa Redgrave in Lajos Koltai's "Evening," a drifty, picturesque, painfully slow mishmash of memories.

Evening might be the most shocking waste of natural resources since the despoiling of the Amazon rain forest.

Vanessa Redgrave, she of faraway eyes the color of moonlight, owlish hoot the sound of midnight. Claire Danes, she of the sunbeam smile and coltish canter. Toni Collette, the lines on whose panoramic forehead inscribe her as Our Lady of Perpetual Worry and Wonder. What riches!

Sadly, they are squandered in this starry, flashbacky memory piece adapted by Michael Cunningham (The Hours) and Susan Minot from her 1998 novel and brought to the screen by cameraman-turned-director Lajos Koltai.

Koltai (cinematographer of Mephisto, Being Julia) is a master of halo and shadow. But his magic-hour lighting emphasizes the picturesque at the expense of the human. Similarly, the moody screenplay drifts between present and past without ever lowering an emotional anchor.

Also squandered, if momentarily spellbinding, are Eileen Atkins, Glenn Close, Meryl Streep, Natasha Richardson (Redgrave's daughter), and Mamie Gummer (Streep's girl). Rarely in the course of movie history have so many done so much to such little effect.

In the throes of delirium or dementia, Ann Lord (Redgrave) thrashes on her deathbed as her daughters, Constance and Nina (Richardson and Collette), watch helplessly. "Harris and I killed Buddy," Mom murmurs, cuing the flashback.

Enter Claire Danes, slender as a spike of lavender, in a circle skirt and espadrilles. She's young Ann circa 1950, underdressed for formal Newport, R.I., where her college roomie, Lila (Gummer), is to be wed the next day. Was Ann a party to murder?

It will be revealed, slowly as an eyedropper draining the Atlantic, that at Lila's wedding Lila experienced the symbolic death of innocence as well as the literal death of a beloved friend.

It will be revealed, slowly as the grains of the Gobi trickling down the neck of an hourglass, that Ann's daughters represent different poles of Mom's personality. Constance is the bourgeois, married mother, carefully groomed and tightly wound. Nina is the bohemian, emotions as varied as her accessories, afraid to commit to dinner, let alone to her boyfriend.

Evening ** (out of four stars)

Produced by Jeffrey Sharp, directed by Lajos Koltai, written by Susan Minot and Michael Cunningham, based on the novel by Minot, photography by Gyula Pados, music by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, distributed by Focus Features.

Running time: 1 hour, 57 mins.

Ann Grant. . . Claire Danes

Nina Mars. . . Toni Collette

Ann Lord. . . Vanessa Redgrave

Lila Wittenborn. . . Meryl Streep

Harris Arden. . . Patrick Wilson

Parent's guide: PG-13 (sexual themes, profanity)

Playing at: area theaters

It will be revealed, with a lugubriousness better suited to a classical requiem than to a dramatic narrative, that women live and die for l'amour.

However much I loved watching the actresses, arguably the most distinguished assembly of performers ever assembled for one film, I found the movie unendurable.

Contact film critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/