When a great actress like Annette Bening walks along the radiant white cliffs of England’s coast, you expect the impact of the movie around her to merit the bid for majesty and solitude. But “Hope Gap,” a shattered-family drama from “Shadowlands” and “Gladiator” screenwriter William Nicholson (who also directs) is something drearily smaller and plainer: a late-middle-aged divorce saga so dead-set on scrubbing any notion of emotional villainy that it’s as thin as a postcard with a view of that presentably beautiful, chalky seaside.
That’s not to say “Hope Gap,” essentially a three-hander with Bill Nighy as the husband and Josh O’Connor as the grown son, isn’t what it promises to be — well-acted, understanding, and literate (explicitly so, with Bening’s Grace a poetry anthologist who quotes Yeats). But when the emotional honesty still doesn’t make for compelling drama, you’re left wondering why, even with all the lights on, there’s a conspicuous lack of galvanizing human detail in the contours of this story.
The 29-year marriage of Grace and Edward, as set up for us inside their lived-in, book-lined home in picturesque Seaford, is one of comfortable familiarity with an ever-present edge. Grace, a passionate malcontent with no filter, likes to muse aloud, almost cheerily, about life’s daily irritations, which is often the absence of engagement, socially or emotionally, from Nighy’s Edward, a soft-spoken, conflict-averse teacher who’s been obsessed of late with the harrowing troop details of Napoleon’s pullout from his ruinous Russian campaign.
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That on-the-nose metaphor for the split to come gave Nicholson’s 2003 play, from which “Hope Gap” is adapted, its name: “The Retreat from Moscow.” If that original title sounds awfully overblown for a small-scale breakup tale, it at least hints at what Edward’s announcement to Grace that he’s leaving her feels like both for him (a mismatched adventure abandoned whatever the cost) and, as we come to see, for her (needlessly wanton destruction).
With their London-based son Jamie (O’Connor) visiting for the weekend at dad’s request, Edward’s revelation that he’s moving out immediately because he’s fallen in love with another woman — a single mom from his school who, he says, accepts him for who he is — might seem like especially bad timing. But it was a passive-aggressive plan of Edward’s all along, with Jamie’s even-keeled presence designed to mitigate the fallout, even though Grace’s brand of critical abrasiveness doesn’t spare Jamie either, whether it’s his faithlessness (she’s a devout churchgoer) or perpetual singlehood, which it turns out has roots in the incompatibility he’s witnessed his whole life.
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What follows is a kind of emotional disaster flick built around Grace’s tempestuous non-acceptance of Edward’s decision: she’s incredulous that he would jump ship instead of diving into the breach to fix what isn’t right. But as the reality sets in, it triggers everything from bemused victimhood — getting a dog and naming it Eddie — to a turbulent intellectual despair. In between, as time passes, Nicholson and cinematographer Anna Valdez-Hanks provide views of that incredible coastline, but those vistas play more like scenic examples of an opened-up play than anything complementary to the story.
What you’re scouring, really, is Bening’s face for a timeless portrayal of womanly survival. And Bening has a fine line to walk with Grace: go too harsh and she’s the calamity everyone understandably runs from, but pitch it too maudlin and she’s alienatingly obtuse to what was clearly an unworkable pairing. That she brings her usual vinegary intelligence to the part is not surprising, but it’s still a problematic character, in that whenever Nicholson tips things closer to something red-blooded and raw — like Grace’s talked-out flirtation with suicide — the writing and direction betrays a studied quality, as if Grace were a prestige-film specimen first, dimensional human second.
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Nighy appears equally right for his role; his early scenes before breaking the bad news are small gems of biding-his-time tolerance. But there’s a general listlessness to Edward that doesn’t equate with the amount of anguish coming from Grace. It’s as if you missed an earlier movie about when their early days were good, and frankly, a couple of separately offered reminiscences don’t cut it as heartfelt context. O’Connor, meanwhile, has to pick up the baton in the second half when Nicholson tries to make Jamie a consequential figure as much in need of therapeutic epiphanies regarding his parents’ marriage as Grace is. But a general blandness about Jamie’s troubles — that he’s closed-up and can’t hold a girlfriend is about it — keeps his character from being terribly stimulating.
Nicholson, whose direction is as stolidly respectful toward words and faces as a writer’s would be when getting behind the camera, does save a nicely pointed confrontation for the end, when a line from Edward’s new girlfriend (Sally Rogers) refreshingly crystallizes why such situations are simultaneously thoughtful and thoughtless. But it’s a scene couched amidst resolutions for Grace and Jamie that feel pat instead of potent. “Hope Gap” presents itself as something messy and confounding, but it’s a spill of feelings too organized and engineered to join the ranks of memorable divorce dramas.