About as unfashionable as they come, Hope Gap has two and a half great actors in it and tells a tender story with great compassion. It’s an adaptation of writer/director William Nicholson’s play The Retreat from Moscow and though Nicholson throws in scenes set on the cliffs and by the sea as often as possible, in an attempt to cinematify things, this is obviously a chamber piece that doesn’t in any case need them. Instead it gets its power from the gulf between what is said and what is unsaid, and the interaction of the two.
The two great actors are Annette Bening and Bill Nighy, playing a long married couple called Grace and Edward whose companionable silences – the actors subtly suggest – might be a cover for something shaky. These two don’t seem very in tune with each other. She likes poetry, he’s fascinated with the Napoleonic Wars. She likes overt displays of affection, he’s less open, Nighy’s body suggesting that Edward is using passivity as a weapon, or at least a defence, against his wife.
It looks like that’s the film right there – a study of a marriage that’s beached rather than on the rocks, with the narrative and emotional arc of getting it refloated. And then Edward announces to his son Jamie (Josh O’Connor) that he’s decided to leave Grace. He’s fallen for the mother of a boy at the school where he teaches and she understand him more than Grace and that’s that, his mind is made up.
There follows a scene that sticks in the memory, as Edward informs Grace of his intention and she attempts to cheerfully and reasonably hedge him about with counter-arguments, unaware that his suitcase is already packed and waiting in the hall and that isn’t a re-run of a conversation that they must have had before. It is grimly awful to watch.
At this point it looks like Nighy’s film but in fact it’s Bening’s. After this announcement, Edward all but leaves the stage, leaving behind Grace, the angry, bitter and bewildered wife. And how brilliantly Bening plays this role. The Home Counties accent slips occasionally but the performance never does.
The half a great actor is Josh O’Connor. Not in any way to diminish him or his performance – at this point in 2018/19 O’Connor had just come off the remarkable God’s Own Country, in which he’s outstanding, and was about to sign up to play Prince Charles in The Crown TV series. But he’s thrown in the deep end with Nighy and Bening, in a confidant role that sees him alternately sharing emotional scenes dominated first by one and then by the other. But Nicholoson also gives Jamie a little story of his own, one that sheds light on the behaviour of both of his parents, and which tweaks away at the emotions unexpectedly.
Hope Gap inhabits the same territory as Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years. While it’s telling a different story, there’s a similar focus on naturalism and everyday dialogue. Nicholson gives us shots of the chalk cliffs and grey sea of the south coast – the reality of Grace’s bereft situation – and breakaway moments of poetry from the likes of Rosetti and WB Yeats in voiceover to point up the distance between the ideal and the situation as Grace is experiencing it.
This is an undeniably small film – the two main players, Josh O’Connor weighing in with some redemption and a plot curlicue of his own, plus the “other woman” right near the end, Sally Rogers playing Angela as a surprisingly down to earth sort.
There are no bad people here, not even Angela, it’s just a situation that’s gone wrong. Nicholson based it on the breakdown of the marriage of his own parents, who separated after 33 years together and it’s set in Seaford on the South Coast, near where Nicholson is from. It’s the small personal touches that make Hope Gap hit home.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021