Every so often, Frank Langella finds his way into a picture that makes ample use of, or has the good sense to subsist largely upon, his prodigious talent for silent power and complexity. One such opportunity, Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon (the stage play garnered Langella a number of awards), will be out this year. Another, director Andrew Wagner’s quietly riveting adaptation of an award-winning novel by Brian Morton, contains what must certainly be one of the best and most complete performances of the masterful actor’s lengthy career.
Shot on HD (for $500,000 in 18 days, reportedly) and featuring a handful of faces you’ll most assuredly recognize, if not quite be able to name on sight, Starting Out in the Evening is a small film in the best sense. It isn’t flawless — but, more importantly, neither are its characters, in whom lies the story’s palpable strength. Leonard Schiller (Langella, Oscar-worthy here) is an out-of-print, once-renowned author faced with twilights professional and essential: Spooked by a recent heart attack, his only ambition is to finish the novel he’s been nursing for years before his time is up. Enter eager-eyed, redheaded grad student Heather (Lauren Ambrose), who has set her sights on Leonard and his legend, hoping to reinvigorate the latter (or both?) with a man-and-his-work thesis. First mildly inconvenienced, then rattled, then ultimately disarmed by her, Schiller finds his quiet existence — and that of his daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor), whose relationship with Pop (and men in general) is close, but complicated — swiftly rendered less so.
Small spots or line deliveries are a bit hitchy at times, but keep an eye trained on the rock-solid Langella — he never falters. And once things pick up with the relationships at the film’s core (right around the honey-face moment — trust me, you’ll spot it), you can’t look away. Evening is one of those private, deeply felt films that makes the experience of watching feel a bit like eavesdropping, which is possibly one of the better compliments I can pay it. These aren’t actors, it seems; you’re spying on people, which makesan unexpected, perfectly chilling moment in the late-goings all the more effective.