In George Stevens’ poignant film, I Remember Mama, the Norwegian-American mother brings her daughter’s writings to a successful author for review. She trades her most precious Norwegian recipes for that service. In the end, the author advises her to tell her daughter to write about what she knows. Tried and true advice, indeed. And such is the case with the recently released feature Hope Gap, written and directed by William Nicholson.
More than a decade ago, Nicholson, a two-time Oscar nominee for penning the screenplays for Gladiator and Shadowlands, took the spiteful events of his parents’ divorce and created a Tony-nominated stage play called The Retreat from Moscow – referring to Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Russia after his armies’ invasion and the two countries’ failure to come to terms.
Now comes Hope Gap, the movie version of his play. Annette Bening and Bill Nighy are the dysfunctional couple, living in the seaside town of Seaford in Sussex. Josh O’Connor, who appeared as Prince Charles in The Crown, plays their adult son who becomes a mediator of sorts. The marriage has lasted 29 years, but the air between the husband and wife is dead. She sits on one side of the room working on a poetry anthology. He sits on the opposite side of the room working with Napoleonic history on Wikipedia. He makes tea but doesn’t remember to offer her a fresh cup.
She does almost all the talking. “There is something that two people can have that we haven’t got. What is it?” He doesn’t seem capable of giving her what she wants. He annoys her. At one point she hits him. She’s always coming at him, we learn. These early scenes shrewdly capture the deficiencies in the marriage in such a naturalistic way.
Soon the muck hits the fan. The long-suffering husband actually has fallen in love with another woman. He awkwardly tells his wife he is leaving her. She erupts more powerfully than ever in an irrational manner. “You owe it to me to try again.” “You are not entitled to leave. You are murdering the marriage.” He packs a suitcase and walks out the door.
Right up to that point, the screenplay for Hope Gap is gifted. The second half of the film’s story is problematic. The Bening character becomes not only unpleasant but unbalanced, and she stays that way. The Nighy character is static, seemingly content in the home of his new partner. Neither can move forward. Her nastiness makes it impossible to successfully complete a divorce. Yes, it’s a situation like France and Russia had so many years ago, and it, too, is seemingly is leading to disaster.
The script enters a state of inertia. Only one plot detail stands out. The irate wife acquires a puppy and names it Edward; that is her estranged husband’s name. She humiliates her husband by training the dog to sit and obey. I believe this is meant as a form of humor to mitigate the relentless drama; however, I found the detail off-putting, embarrassing.
Bening, Nighy, and O’Connor interpret their roles skillfully. Nighy is in an especially difficult role because his character is so quiet, only occasionally expressing his deepfelt feelings. Hope Gap ends oddly. I still don’t fully understand the last shots. What Hope Gap offers is outstanding acting and half of a brilliant script.
Maybe the concept of writing about what you know is not infallible. Sometimes you can get too fixed upon real-life memories. The script needs more interesting detail, action, more events and consequences. Mainstream movies need excitement and story advancement . Possibly Hope Gap needs more of Nicholson’s expert imagination, rather than relating what he knows.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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