Hope Gap review: Annette Bening puts some puff into a little English separation story

Bening makes a brilliantly bitter new divorcée opposite a button-up Bill Nighy in screenwriter-turned-director William Nicholson’s crisp but all too modest drama of a couple parting ways.

Hope Gap premieres in the UK on 4 October at the BFI London Film Festival

Tom Charity
Updated:

Annette Bening as Grace and Bill Nighy as Edward in Hope Gap

Annette Bening as Grace and Bill Nighy as Edward in Hope Gap

An awful lot of tea is made, and mostly consumed, in William Nicholson’s hand-wringing, heart-tugging, wretchedly-titled divorce tale Hope Gap, only the acclaimed and prolific writer’s second stab at directing.

We are in England, of course, a seaside town with white cliffs, rolling hills and fewer tourists than you might expect. Edward and Grace (Bill Nighy and Annette Bening) are just a few days shy of their 29th wedding anniversary when a blazing row ends with Grace overturning the kitchen table. The cause? Edward’s emotional reticence, his inability to be fully present in the marriage.

Their grown son Jamie (Josh O’Connor), visiting for the weekend, is surprised by the vehemence, but reassured by Grace’s calm explanation that she’s only trying to get a reaction, and the next morning she heads off to Church as if nothing has happened. It’s only then that Edward tells his son that he’s leaving this very day, that he’s in love with another woman, and that Grace has no idea any of this is happening.

So it proves: she is completely blindsided, not only by the revelation that her husband wants out, but also that he has the backbone to see it through. Jamie does his best to help her through it while steadfastly refusing to take sides, and Edward is adamant that he’s not coming back.

Hope Gap (2019)

No, this is not uncharted territory. We’ve had Charlotte Rampling calling it quits on Tom Courtney in 45 Years, Stanley Tucci informing Emma Thompson he means to have an affair in The Children’s Act, and so on. Here again, the focus is principally on the jilted wife, though Nicholson, like Jamie, declines to take sides or assign blame. (“Why not?” demands Grace. “I am the victim here. He murdered our marriage.”)

As a study in anger and depression, Hope Gap is mercifully witty and so crisply put together there’s never any real danger it will join Grace in the trough of despair, and she doesn’t wallow in it too long herself. As she allows, the problem with depression is that it’s fundamentally uninteresting.

Bening’s honeyed, upscale English accent is arguably a register too posh even if Grace is, as best we know, occupied only with compiling an anthology of poetry (there are lengthy quotations from Rossetti, Yeats and others when Nicholson realises it is time for a summation). Nevertheless she is assuredly the most compelling aspect of the film. Bening’s brittle, brainy pride and determination stand in sharp relief from Grace at her most abject, and there’s a steeliness about her refusal to forgive which is interesting and tough. She nails the bitter humour, too, when Grace gets herself a puppy to train and unapologetically names it ‘Edward’.

Still, the character’s heavily signed Catholicism is never explored with any spiritual hunger or curiosity; it’s more a topic of conversation and a minor plot point. Nicholson seems to think Grace would be throwing herself off one of those cliffs if it didn’t entail eternal damnation… perhaps, but most divorcees don’t.

Eschewing such melodramatics – the other woman only appears at the very end – and for the most part keeping a tight lid on the fireworks, Hope Gap has quintessentially English qualities: it’s authentic but narrow and insular; clever and sophisticated but safe and unsurprising; unsentimental, but not really. It’s perfectly fine, but like the marriage at its core, not nearly good enough.

 

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