Hope Gap

Annette Bening and Bill Nighy

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.

Josh O'Connor as Jamie
Josh O’Connor as Jamie



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









God’s Own Country

Josh O'Connor and Alec Secareanu

 

It was reading about his highly anticipated 2020 film Ammonite that jolted me into the realisation that I’d never got around to seeing God’s Own Country, former actor Francis Lee’s 2017 debut as writer/director. It was on the must-watch list and then another load of must-watches came along and it got lost. Thanks to the imminence of Ammonite, amends have now been made.

“God’s own county” (not “country”) is what proud Yorshirefolk call England’s biggest (and once richest) administrative region, a sentiment not shared by the protagonist of this tale of big emotions played out on small canvases.

Johnny (Josh O’Connor) hates Yorkshire, he hates the family farm he works on with his increasingly ailing dad (Ian Hart) and severe nan (Gemma Jones), hates the fact he’s stuck there while other, luckier locals have gone off to university, the big city, wherever. When not grudgingly tending to the sheep, he’s either having quick bouts of joyless gay sex with whoever will do it with him – strictly no strings, he doesn’t want a relationship – or else getting absolutely hammered on booze.

Francis Lee is gay and grew up on a West Yorkshire farm next door to where this was shot, so this might be his own story, and being a debut you’d expect a bit of “write what you know”. Whether it is or not, Lee – who headed to the fleshpots of London as a young man but now lives back on the Yorkshire moors – has spotted that there’s a lot of dramatic tension to be had from the juxtaposition of being a young gay man and being a Yorkshire native, where stoicism is a way of life and “mithering” is something you never want to be accused of. Out and proud, it’s all a bit too demonstrative.

Johnny’s home seethes with emotions held in check – Dad is silent and furious, Nan is tight-lipped. “Hear all, see all, say nowt…” as the old Yorkshire saying starts.

Then along comes temporary Romanian worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) – a “Gypo” Johnny calls him – to help with the lambing for a week or so. He’s a dark, handsome stranger, a Heathcliff from Eastern Europe with a gentle touch when it comes to ewes in difficulty and robust enough to absorb Johnny’s open hostility.

 

Gheorghe washes while Johnny broods
Gheorghe washes while Johnny broods

 

They fall for each other, and we spend the rest of the film watching Johnny’s granite rejection of emotional attachment being worn down by a force he can’t control.

Neither man says much, but everything they do say is freighted with meaning. They call each other “faggot” as a term of endearment, because saying “I love you” is impossible, for Johnny at any rate. And they have fast, hard sex, rolling around in the mud outside in their first physical encounter, because that way it’s a physical rather than emotional act (and it makes the whole thing somehow more manly).

In a Hollywood film you’d probably get a big affirmative finish, perhaps even a musical number (joke) but though Johnny’s journey is epic and transformational, the fireworks are all internal – and here the acting by O’Connor in particular, but also Secareanu, Hart and Jones is exactly of a piece with the bleak cinematography (don’t expect sunshine), the gritty landscape and the flat interiors.

It’s not a one to ten sort of film, more a zero to one – binary – the biggest transformation of all.

God’s Own Country is regularly bracketed with Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend. But whereas the first is a gay drama (coming out, or whether to, is the issue), Weekend has gone beyond that (being out is the issue) while God’s Own Country is further along still – it’s a post-gay drama. Here, being a mardy Yorkshireman is of much more significance than sexual orientation.

 

God’s Own Country – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020