As she lies dying in her upstairs bedroom, twice-married Ann Lord (Vanessa Redgrave) drifts in and out of consciousness, watched over by an imperious Irish night nurse (Eileen Atkins) who helps relieve her pain with morphine. Ann awakens long enough to mistake her younger daughter Nina (Toni Collette) for her eldest, Constance (Natasha Richardson), and mumbles something about a man named "Harris" before slipping back into a reverie. While asleep, Ann travels back to Newport, Rhode Island, some 50 years earlier, to the weekend wedding of her best friend, Lila Wittenborn (Mamie Gummer). Shortly after arriving at the Wittenborn's grand summer "cottage," feeling underdressed and a little out of place among Newport's moneyed WASPs, penniless young Ann Grant (Claire Danes), who hopes to make it as a singer, is introduced to Harris Arden (Patrick Wilson), a handsome young doctor and the childhood friend of Lila and her younger ne'er-do-well brother, Buddy (Hugh Dancy). Buddy, too, hopes to make something of himself one day he would've become a great novelist if all the great opening lines weren't already taken but growing up in the shadow of his accomplished older sister has left him an insecure alcoholic. Buddy begins drinking heavily, much to the frozen-faced chagrin of his crusty parents (Glenn Close, Barry Bostwick), and as the rest of the wedding party begins to arrive, he pulls Ann aside to let her in on a little secret: Lila doesn't really love her fiancee, Carl (Timothy Kiefer). Lila has always been in love with Harris, something Ann can understand: She's begun to feel a deep passion for this man she's only just met, a passion that will come to define love and disappointment for the rest of her life. Meanwhile, in the present day, Nina has begun to wonder about the identity of "Harris," whom Ann drowsily refers to as "my first mistake," and begins to suspect that her mother, like Nina herself, has lived an unfulfilled life.
Rather than concentrate on Ann's disappointed infatuation and providing a satisfactory reason for its failure, Minot and, one suspects, Cunningham in particular, chose to flesh out the character of Buddy. No longer simply a romantic alternative for Ann, he's become Lila's rival, not just for the approval of their parents but for the attention of Harris, whom a sexually conflicted Buddy also loves. It's an interesting take, but it shifts the focus too far away from Ann and Harris and turns what should be an unforgettable passion into an unconvincing bit of melodrama. Danes, however, is a standout in an already heavy-hitting cast that also includes Meryl Streep as the elderly Lila. leave a comment --Ken Fox
Screenwriters Susan Minot and fellow novelist Michael Cunningham make key changes to Minot's acclaimed 1997 book with mixed results; the alterations streamline the story and enrich subplots, but dilute its all-important central relationship.