'Hope Gap': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
Scenes from a dead marriage.

William Nicholson's drama stars Annette Bening and Bill Nighy as an aging British couple navigating an unexpected divorce.

Hope Gap arrives as a rare modern example of the old-school British playwright brand of cinema, in which the camera is trained obediently upon well-spoken actors as they precisely enunciate their well-wrought lines. Aside from the occasional drone shot that ventures out past the white cliffs to scenically take in the English Channel below, this is a film that could as easily have been made in 1949 as in 2019, which to a handful of viewers will represent a good thing but to others will seem impossibly retrograde.

A mature public, which represents the target audience for veteran screenwriter William Nicholson's study of the divorce of a longtime couple played by Annette Bening and Bill Nighy, will mostly wait to catch this on home screens rather than in a cinema.

Puzzling though it may be, the film's title is positively scrutable compared to that of the play it is based on, Nicholson's The Retreat From Moscow. Napoleon's humiliation, a tad grandiose a metaphor for a husband's abandonment of his presumably once-cherished wife, is mentioned briefly in the drama, which originally debuted onstage at the 1999 Chichester Festival. With John Lithgow and Eileen Atkins in the leading roles, the Broadway production was a modest success and multiple Tony Awards nominee in the 2003-04 season.

Act one is set almost entirely in the cozy Seaford, East Sussex, home of Edward and Grace, whose 29th anniversary is approaching (in the stage version they've been married 33 years). Wasting no time, Nicholson fearlessly gets right to the point in exposing the couple's winterish discontent. Grace issues such tart complaints as, “Do I have to do everything?” and “I say things. Why don't you say things?” and then boldly inquires, “We are happy, aren't we?,” to which Edward blandly replies, “Why wouldn't we be?” In search of a bit of solace, Grace thereupon toddles off to Sunday mass; naturally, Edward is a non-believer.

Thus is laid out the measure of Edward's displeasure. “Things are coming to a head,” Edward, a teacher, warns his son Jamie (Josh O'Connor), who's briefly down from London and learns the news of his father's intention to leave his mother before she does. “She'll be better off without me,” Edward insists, before adding that, oh, by the way, “There's someone else.”

When he succinctly announces all this to Grace upon her return from church, she is incredulous and insists that he stay so they can right the ship. For his part, Edward believes that saying “I'm no good for you” should be enough; all he wants is a quick exit from the excruciating situation, which he manages. The only thing missing here is a curtain coming down or a title announcing, “End of Act One.”

Every dramatic detail in this relatable microdrama is scrupulously tended to, every comma and period is in place, every sorry admission is conveyed with just the right measure of weary regret or anger, and each attempt by Grace to perform a last-minute rescue proves more pathetic than the last. What's most admirable in the writer's approach is his even-handed fairness toward both characters, his refusal to point a finger of blame or subtly take sides. Neither is more in the wrong than the other; the only thing that's unfair is that one of them has someone else to go to, while the other is left high and dry.

Bening, employing a steady, all-purpose British accent, credibly registers the full measure of shock, dismay and disbelief that any woman, but perhaps especially a long-married one in her 60s, might be expected to convey. As for the older-looking Edward, he just wants to get out of the room and go somewhere to quietly read a book without Grace bothering him all the time. Nighy has often played wild, unhinged, hilarious characters, so his seriously tamped-down turn here reveals the far opposite end of his range.

What's odd about this take on a long-term couple's break is that it is conducted in front of an adult son, so there's hope after the half-hour first act that Jamie, who is in his mid-20s, might emerge with a monkey wrench to twist the drama in an unexpected direction. Unfortunately, the young man, both as written and acted, proves to be a wash-out, a gaping-mouthed lad who has no spark, insight or anything useful to say and is scarcely believable as the son of his two intelligent, if emotionally imbalanced, parents. The fact that O'Connor resembles neither of the actors playing his parents can't go unnoticed, either.

After a spell spent sharing Grace's self-imposed solitary misery, the film turns to the couple's first post-split encounter where they're meant to sign papers giving her full ownership of their house, which unsurprisingly doesn't go as planned. Visits to the great cliffs overlooking the Channel provide an occasional visual break (the pic's title refers to a certain spot along the coast), but nothing can conceal that the whole enterprise feels hyper-calculated in what might call an anti-Pinterish way, in that bile and biliousness are held in check.

Nicholson directed one previous film, the 1830s-set romantic melodrama Firelight in 1997, and his approach here can simply be called direct and fully devoted to the support of the script. The issue is that there is no subtext or undertones, the suggestion of nuance and complexities. The characters proclaim their positions, announce what they feel and think but, despite this, we know little about them other than their feelings about the immediate subject at hand.

Hope Gap may engage the mind up to a point with its pithy dialogue and resourceful players, but it offers little insight into the complexities and wages of wedlock.

Production company: Origin Pictures
Cast: Annette Bening, Bill Nighy, Josh O'Connor
Director-screenwriter: William Nicholson, based on his play The Retreat From Moscow
Producers: David M. Thompson, Sandra McDermott
Executive producers: Hugo Heppell, Nicolas D. Sampson, Arno Hazebroek, Cristos Michaels, Gavin Poolman, Alex Tate
Director of photography: Anna Valdez-Hanks
Production designer: Simon Rogers
Costume designer: Suzanne Cave
Editor: Pia Di Ciaula
Music: Alex Heefes
Casting: Gary Davy
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)

101 minutes