Hope Gap (2019)

If you checked in with me last week, you will have read all about my bamboozlement and downright frustration at Tenet. Delighted to be back at the cinema, but less than delighted at a film that, besides not being a genre that I particularly love, was borderline and inaudible and narratively impenetrable. It’s safe to say that I was looking for something a little bit different for my second trip back, and in Hope Gap, I couldn’t have been presented with something more different!

Hope Gap tells the story of a marriage in free fall when after 29 years, Edward (Bill Nighy) decides to leave his wife Grace (Annette Bening). The couple’s adult son Jamie (Josh O’Connor) returns to the family home to help his distraught mother navigate the aftermath, and the narrative proceeds as a relatively quiet but very contemplative examination of love, life and everything that marriage and family encompasses.

The film is adapted from the 1999 William Nicholson play The Retreat From Moscow, and what is most striking about it is that it absolutely feels it. I mean that in the sense that Hope Gap is another in the very long line of movies that essentially feel like plays that have been put on the big screen with some expanded landscapes. You know the kind; the themes are strong, the performances are generally solid and the dialogue is usually strong, but there is very little about the finished product that is quintessentially ‘cinematic’. If something like August: Osage County is the absolute best example of this, then Hope Gap, whilst still being enjoyable, does fall a few rungs down from the top of the ladder.

Whilst the film no doubt benefits from the depth of its theatrical source material, there’s no getting away from the fact that there are very few risks taken or interesting devices used to add anything more to it than you would have experienced on the stage. any strength that Hope Gap has is thanks to its thematic elements and its performances, with the technical aspects of the filmmaking feeling particularly uninspired. Don’t get me wrong, I have no issue with a quieter, more pensive motion picture, but I do like them to feel more elevated than something that could pass for a two hour TV special. William Nicholson has decades of screenwriting experience, but this marks only his second turn as director. Perhaps therein lies some of the problem.

Without a shadow of a doubt the strongest element of Hope Gap is its leading performances. Give or take a few dodgy moments with her British accent, Annette Bening gives a really fascinating, layered turn as Grace. Arguably the most interesting aspect of the overall story, Grace is not a character that the audience particularly wants to pity. Abrasive, head strong, bullying at times, the audience are given every opportunity to understand exactly why this marriage is breaking down, and whilst Grace isn’t the sole catalyst, she certainly comes across as something of a conflicted antagonist. Bening is excellent in the role, and the sheer power of her charisma helps to keep the character from becoming irredeemably unlikable.

Giving a more understated but equally as excellent performance as Edward is Bill Nighy. The film presents a different kind of ‘husband walks out on wife’ dynamic than one might be used to from other dramas, and despite his faults, Edward is a much more sympathetic character than the premise of the story would make him out to be. For me, this is some of Nighy’s best work in recent years, using his mastery of awkward silence and quiet, measured contemplation to the fullest possible extent. It would go against the point of the film to say that he and Bening share a good chemistry, but there is certainly a feel of something special when the two are on screen together. Referring back to the observation that Hope Gap feels more like a play than a film, it is in the availability of casting where the jump the cinema starts to feel worth it. A West End production might never have been able to bring Bill Nighy and Annette Bening together, but film did.

As son Jamie, Josh O’Connor is very much the man in the middle, and his performance is suitably emotionally charged. O’Connor does a really effective job of channeling sympathy for his mother whilst at the same time being perhaps more emotionally aligned with his father, and the character is a poignant representation of the way in which a child can become an amalgamation of their parental figures. The scenes that O’Connor and Bening share in particular are some of the most emotionally striking in the entire film.

Overall, Hope Gap is a fairly solid family drama that, whilst failing to fully break from its stage trappings and spread cinematic wings, certainly provides enough thematic pull and strong acting to be a worthwhile viewing experience. The filmmaking could definitely have been more interesting, but the dramatic content definitely holds up, especially when in the hands of three stellar performers. If absolutely nothing else, it is always a joy to see Annette Bening doing great work.

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