James Jay Edwards reviews Hope Gap, a movie about the dissolution of a marriage after 29 years, starring Annette Bening and Bill Nighy.
There’s a masochistic trend in movies where audiences just love to watch marriages fall apart. From the young hipsters in Marriage Story to the old couple in 45 Years, from the serious Oscar bait of Kramer vs. Kramer to the musical stylings of The Last Five Years, people love to watch other people fall out of love. And that’s pretty much what Hope Gap is all about.
Hope Gap is the story of a young man named Jamie Axton (Josh O’Connor from God’s Own Country) who comes home from London for a visit with his parents at their seaside English home. Upon his arrival, his father Edward (Love Actually’s Bill Nighy) confesses that he has fallen out of love with Jamie’s mother, Grace (Annette Bening from 20th Century Women), and is planning on asking for a separation. This kicks off a series of arguments and confrontations between the two spouses, with Jamie caught hopelessly in the middle.
(Hope Gap, theatrical release poster, Roadhouse Attractions)
Writer/director William Nicholson is best known for his work on the scripts for movies like Gladiator and Unbroken, but with Hope Gap he explores a much more minimalistic style. In between the beautiful East Sussex locations and the Terrence Malick-y voiceover narration, Hope Gap unfolds much like a play, with most of the action taking place between just the three characters and communicated through lengthy spouts of dialogue. In fact, Nicholson actually adapted Hope Gap from his Tony-nominated play The Retreat from Moscow, which was based upon the dissolution of his own parents’ long marriage, which also explains why it’s Jamie’s story as much as it is that of Grace and Edward. So, it’s a highly personal film. At least for Nicholson.
For the average viewer, however, not so much. It’s well made, and of course Annette Bening and Bill Nighy turn in excellent (sometimes downright brilliant) performances, but there’s something missing from Hope Gap. It’s more sterile, and therefore less emotionally effective, than, say, last year’s Academy Awards Best Picture nominee Marriage Story. The characters seem too reserved, like they’re constantly holding things back. And it’s quite possible that they are holding things back, particularly in Grace’s case, in order to look strong in front of their son. But the problem with communication in their marriage becomes a problem with engaging storytelling for the movie’s audience.
(Hope Gap, Roadhouse Attractions)
Hope Gap feels like what it is: an expansion of a shorter, more precise work. The movie is full of long conversations with very few revelations, Grace wanting to work things out while Edward is hellbent on ending their union. Once the theme is defined, the movie goes in circles, which is how divorce discussions usually turn out in real life. So, it’s a fairly accurate depiction. But, at least in this case, it’s not so much fun to watch, even if the players involved are Annette Bening and Bill Nighy.
There’s a scene in Hope Gap where the characters discuss the difference between “happy” and “fine.” The discussion relates to how people are doing, and how they can be feeling “fine” without actually being “happy.” Hope Gap is “fine.” It’s no more, but it’s no less.