Hope Gap review: Annette Bening anchors a tale of divorce by the seaside

William Nicholson’s second film as a director, ‘Hope Gap’ is a world away from the projects he’s usually known for, having co-written both ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Les Misérables’

Clarisse Loughrey
Wednesday 02 September 2020 15:47 BST
Hope Gap - Trailer

Dir: William Nicholson. Starring: Annette Bening, Bill Nighy, Josh O’Connor, Aiysha Hart, Ryan McKen. 12A cert, 100 mins

It’s painful to watch someone cling to a dead romance. Edward (Bill Nighy) is telling his wife Grace (Annette Bening) that he wants to leave. He’s met someone else. Gripping his mug of tea – the most British of comfort blankets – he struggles to make eye contact with the woman he knows he’s betrayed. The camera timorously searches Grace’s features for a reaction. But no tears are shed. She remains strangely, disconcertingly cheery as she informs him that their marriage is far from over. All will be well with a little work. “You’re not even trying!” she adds.

Hope Gap, William Nicholson’s second film as a director, is a world away from the projects he’s usually known for, having co-written both Gladiator and Les Misérables. The emotional ground it covers is far more ordinary – namely, the shock of someone you’ve spent your entire life with suddenly appearing to you as a stranger.

This isn’t just the story of a husband and the wife he’s left behind, but of their son (Josh O’Connor’s Jamie), whom Edward invites home to serve as a buffer. He tries to soothe his mother’s worries as best he can (O’Connor’s gentle, subdued aura is well served here), while privately worrying that his own floundering relationship is proof he’s turning into his father.

The film’s setting is as pleasant and unobtrusive as possible. They’re a distinctly middle-class family living in picturesque Seaford, taking daily walks up to the cliffs to muse – all captured in bright, crisp hues by cinematographer Anna Valdez-Hanks. Edward is a teacher, while Grace is putting together a poetry anthology entitled “I Have Been Here Before”, intended to remind readers that every feeling is a recycled one, experienced countless times throughout history.

Grace’s placid surroundings have a way of amplifying her own distress. Her cries of pain ricochet off the walls. Denial morphs into delusion, as she patiently sits on the stairs of her home each day, waiting for Edward to return. Bening’s British accent feels off, but its measured, dreamlike tones fit surprisingly well with Grace’s increasing detachment from reality. At times, it borders on the absurd. She acquires a puppy and names it after her husband, then compares herself to the widows and orphans of war. Bening makes her eccentricity believable.

Hope Gap is an adaptation of Nicholson’s own Tony-nominated play The Retreat from Moscow, its title inspired by Napoleon’s failed invasion of 1812. Edward recounts the story to his pupils, so that the film can gracelessly offer it up as a metaphor for his failed marriage. But Nicholson doesn’t stop there. “It’s all contactless now!” Edward exclaims. He’s talking about card payments; we’re meant to think of human socialisation. Though the cast gamely delivers each idea, finding the musicality in the ebb and flow of Nicholson’s words, Hope Gap never seems to grasp the crucial differences between theatre and film. A full buffet of metaphors isn’t necessary when the camera itself can say so much about a character’s state of mind. What is rich on stage can feel crowded and stiff on film.

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