With a week to go before their 29th wedding anniversary, Edward (Bill Nighy) decides not to take his wife Grace (Annette Bening) out for dinner. Instead, he packs a bag and tells her he wants a divorce. Their comfy family life near Hope Gap, Seaford, suddenly falls apart and the natural environment stands in as a fallacy for the turbulence of the household.
I’m finding it difficult to piece together my thoughts on William Nicholson’s Hope Gap: it’s a film you need to mull over for a while before articulating how it played out. While I usually have a strong reaction to material right away, and it was a promising setup, I have to frankly admit that I found it dull. The argument as to whether or not it was aimed at my particular demographic seems to carry less and less weight at festivals like this: if a film is well-formed and compelling enough, it should generate a reaction from anyone. This elicited hardly any emotional response from me whatsoever owing to a slow pace and under-used performers.
Director: William Nicholson
Release date: October 3, 2019 (Italy); October 4, 2019 (LFF)
Perhaps some would consider Nicholson a mouthpiece for doomed middle-aged couples everywhere, but that’s not a legacy I think I’d want to celebrate with a film like this. I think perhaps the specificity of the story made it too niche. Some would enjoy the verisimilitude (having lived minutes from Seaford, I can tell you that the Southern train service is truly abysmal). But otherwise, it makes it difficult to connect with the characters. Put simply, it feels too much like one person’s story, and to examine it in depth feels uncomfortable, like prying into someone’s home without their permission.
You could argue that I’ve misread it, but one comparison that came to me with complete clarity was to Ian McEwan’s novels and film adaptations. McEwan has a tendency leaning towards the verbose: he seems to enjoy drawing out the most unpleasant situations in order to find moral meaning. Whether it’s a failed marriage night in On Chesil Beach or a knotty legal and moral conundrum in The Children Act, he manages to somehow take elevated subjects and turn them into drivel. I won’t be completely unkind to Nicholson, but in much the same way, he drew out a deeply unpleasant situation in a similarly slow-paced feature that dragged its heels.
The screenplay might also be said to resemble a Pinter play: the everyday conversation of married life rolled on, which perhaps intended to document married life as if the camera didn’t exist. I kept waiting for something more to happen, but it didn’t. I can sympathise to the extent that marriages sometimes simply fade away and there’s no dramatic spectacle to accompany it. That much I’ll give Williams credit for: it’s probably closer to reality than most dramas would hint at. But honestly, I felt as though the characters weren’t used to their full potential. These three excellent frontrunners deserved better.
In Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Benning plays the ageing actress Gloria Graeme, who is in denial about her declining health. In some ways I felt that she delivered the same kind of neurotic traits in her performance as Grace, her name belying a trait which I’m not sure whether she possessed.
I quite frankly found Grace irritating to a high degree, unnecessarily defensive following the breakdown of the marriage. There’s no way of telling what someone might be like in that situation, but that’s the point: this is just a simulation. It shouldn’t have been obvious that it was so painstakingly scripted. She herself is devout, attending church and offering to pray for the situation. Jamie’s lack of faith sums up the lack of hope the family is feeling and even Grace’s cursory visits to mass, which she seems to enjoy, aren’t enough to rub off on her family.
Nighy needs no introduction, though I think I may have found a role in which I actually don’t like him. It’s an ill fit for his usually effervescent personality, and I felt as though the only thing that distinguished him was occasional eye contact, which drew him out of his wise, thoughtful persona into a more vulnerable person. It felt like watching someone you know and respect who has been forced to talk about his feelings and he’s uncomfortable with it. His character Edward is a secondary school teacher: if you imagine a teacher of yours forced to talk about their personal life to an audience, you’ll get an idea of the kind of awkwardness this brings out.
Josh O’Connor is perhaps the redeeming feature of the film, giving a convincing performance as the couple’s conflicted child, and understandably so. Trying to help the ailing situation, he is back and forth between his parents’ seaside home in Seaford and his flat in London. A reserved soul himself, he’s not completely fulfilled with life either — and then his father breaks the news that the parents are divorcing. There’s not a lot going for him.
After the screening I had a discussion with another critic who enjoyed the film, describing it as cleverly constructed and the performances as standout. While I can’t speak for everyone, I found the film difficult to watch not because of the performances or the construction, but because I didn’t particularly feel a connection to the characters.
Was it a ‘witty divorce drama’ after all? I’m still unsure. For one thing, metaphors of a marriage ‘on the rocks’ or someone ‘at the end of the line’ (standing on the edge of a cliff) are laboured for all they’re worth. I did enjoy the natural scenery and on-location shooting: it’s a particular British experience, and maybe it will find its audience as a slice-of-life feature. I found it to romanticise the idea of childhood and youth, padded out with poetry and classical music, only to end with a bleak hit of reality. The film rounds off on a more hopeful note, but its plodding dialogue and unsympathetic characters made it difficult to enjoy.