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As well-trodden as the subject might be, there remains something horribly compelling about watching the end of a marriage play out on screen, the uneasy little details of what happens when someone switches to I Don’t proving hard to resist. In Hope Gap, Oscar-nominated screenwriter William Nicholson’s second film as director, we’re given an all-too-familiar set-up (husband tells long-serving wife that he’s leaving her for a younger woman) and the stage is set for blistering quarrels, messy untangling and two awards-aiming performances. But despite the clear dramatic potential of the wounds of divorce, proved time and time again by films ranging from An Unmarried Woman to this Oscar season’s Marriage Story, Nicholson fails to give his film the specificity and emotional depth required to make it seem necessary. We’ve been here before and nothing in the film’s 100-minute length truly justifies why we’re back here again.
In the coastal town of Seaford, Grace (Annette Bening) and Edward (Bill Nighy) share a modest life, a comfortably learned dynamic set firmly, perhaps boringly, in place after 33 years together. Grace is gregarious and needy, Edward reserved and serious, and while her desire for more affection and vocal reassurances might cause mild tension, her pleas have become part of the script they’re both used to playing out day after day, year after year. But when Edward urges their son Jamie (God’s Own Country’s Josh O’Connor) to return for the weekend, it soon becomes clear that something is brewing. Grace’s paranoia over Edward’s lack of eye contact and nervousness around her is suddenly, abruptly justified when he announces that he’s leaving her for another woman.
While there’s a nervy propulsion behind these initial scenes, especially during Edward’s painful pre-dump prep, the breakup happens so soon into the film that we’re left scratching our heads over what’s to come next. It turns out the answer is largely nothing and in place of a plot, there’s a repetitive cycle of crying, beach-walking and moping that might have felt less plodding if we had more investment in the couple at its centre. Their relationship is painted with recognisably broad strokes (the nagging wife and repressed husband) and despite two inarguably accomplished actors, there’s a niggling disconnect. Nighy’s well-meaning, if unacceptably cowardly, husband is played with an affecting subtlety but a miscast Bening struggles to match him. She’s hampered with an ill-fitting British accent she’s never truly comfortable with and so much of her performance is muddied by her struggle to sound believable as a Brit that little room is left for her to seem believable as a person. It’s ultimately as awkward for her as it is for us.
There are glimmers of insight along the way, particularly in how Grace compares a divorce to a murder and how spurned women are devalued in comparison with widows, but it’s mostly surface. Introducing their son as a key component is an interesting move but it’s never one that really pays off and Nicholson’s attempts to capture twentysomething life border on embarrassing. There’s the odd excursion into the city and a handful of supporting characters but it’s mostly a three-hander in a limited number of locations. Aware of how stagey this might seem, Nicholson and cinematographer Anna Valdez-Hanks do offer up some stunning coastal vistas but matched with a swelling score, we’re left craving a narrative of equal weight and as devastating as Grace’s predicament is, the pathos never comes. Divorce is painful but Hope Gap isn’t damn near painful enough.
Source: The Guardian
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