In this film about the end of a marriage, Bill Nighy’s Edward makes an attempt to stay, before ultimately deciding to move in with his new love, a younger single mother of one of his students at the high school where he teaches history. Annette Benning’s Grace makes an attempt to coax Edward back to her and to give their marriage another try, through depths of denial.
Most crucially, this film made an attempt to keep my interest. None of these attempts succeeded.
Written and directed by Oscar-nominated screenwriter William Nicholson (Shadowlands (2003), Gladiator (2002)), Hope Gap is his second film where he takes on the role of director. Unfortunately, it is a forgettable addition to an abundance of the ever-growing genre of “Divorce Movies”, from Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) to Marriage Story (2019). The narrative is typical: the week before their 29th wedding anniversary, Edward abruptly announces to his wife he is leaving her. Grace, feeling this has come out of the blue, is left reeling and lost. Their adult son Jamie (Josh O’Connor, ya boy from God’s Own Country (2017) and Emma.(2020)) visits on the weekends to help his mother through the separation, but he’s just as lost as the rest of them. Whether he’s strolling along the boardwalk with his father, promising not to give out Edward’s new phone number to Grace or making his mum a cup of tea while refusing to give the new phone number to her, Jamie navigates the tricky terrain of care between both parents.
With a power-house cast like this (“dream team!” I wrote in the group chat when putting my hand up for the review), such an intimate film should have been a winner. But it’s a sad day when not even the powerhouse combination of Nighy and Benning can keep me engaged. I was not connected to these characters at all — just annoyed by them.
In a film centered around divorce, the balance between the characters needs to be the perfect give and take. In Marriage Story, equal weight is given to both Nicole’s (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie’s (Adam Driver) need for divorce or attempts to make things right. They are fully fleshed out characters with a relationship the audience is privy to: the film opens with each character revealing what they love about the other person, and screen-time is shared between them. In Hope Gap, the balance is off, with Grace too heavy-handed and Edward too detached. At least in Marriage Story, both parties care about the outcome and each other. I’m not entirely sure the same can be said for Nicholson’s film.
Edward’s game-plan for the divorce operates under the belief that the less contact he has with Grace, the sooner she will move on. This, instead, makes Edward come across as non-confrontational, hoping that his separation will be swept under the rug. Like he rolled over one morning, gave up and got out. Jamie speaks for us when he points out Edward’s passive callousness: “You seemed to have cared for her so much, and now… not.” There isn’t really any character insight given into him other than the same basic truths which run throughout the whole film: he used to care for her, and now he doesn’t. It’s too simple.
Grace, on the other hand is overbearing, moralising, her accent a little grating and holier-than-thou. Divorce is not an easy thing to go through, and Benning’s performance as the left woman, both mourning and unable to accept the reality of her fate is commendable at best. I could not stop wishing I was watching Benning in 20th Century Women (2016) instead. Her Dorothea in the film is just as perplexed as Grace, this time about the fast-changing world of the 1970s around her. But at least Dorothea demonstrates curiosity — in contrast, Grace is just stubborn. By the time we reach the final twenty minutes of the film, she has adopted a dog she names Edward and I’m ready to throw in the towel (Let him live, Grace!!) but at least now with a dog, she has an Edward who will obediently stay when she tells him to.
Playing essentially as a two-hander with Josh O’Connor popping up with drooping shoulders to act as mediator, there is little else provided to connect with, beyond these characters’ predictable mannerisms (a meeting with Grace and Edwards’ lawyers near the end of the film in particular exacerbates them). Despite a surprising and touching moment between mother and son that leads to a new volunteer position at a crisis hotline for Grace, Nicholson’s inability to flesh out the divorcing couple’s relationship means there isn’t much left to care about when it eventually dissolves.
Grace finds comfort in poetry, particularly the opener line “I have been here before” in Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s “Sudden Light”. The phrase breeds a conviction that no matter what you are going through, someone else has been through it, too. At the end of the film, Jamie helps Grace translate the poetry anthology she was working on at the beginning of the film into a more accessible online database. Here, visitors can put how they are feeling into the search bar, and a collection of poems pertaining to that emotion will pop up to demonstrate that feeling of someone having been there before. I suppose such a database would have been beneficial for Grace during the loss she felt from the divorce, or maybe Nicholson intended for this film to serve a similar role for audiences. When demonstrating the database to his friends, Jamie equates his friend’s detailed offering of emotions into the broad term of “hope”. I guess this is where the film reaches its nexus, but equating the broad spectrum of human emotion down to one word is sometimes too simplistic, much like Nicholson’s film. I may have been here before, but Hope Gap doesn’t necessarily make me want to go back.
Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen screen tragic from Melbourne, Australia. She recently completed an honours thesis on girlhood on screen, and has written for Vogue Australia, Junkee, The Big Issue, Screen Queens and more. Follow her at @theclairencew.