Hope Gap

 

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An unexpected return to the fray by William Nicholson as writer/director.

 
Hope Gap

Bill Nighy

 

It was over twenty years ago that the well-established writer William Nicholson surprised us by directing one of his own screenplays. That was 1997's Firelight and, given that the critical reception was harsh, one had not anticipated a second such enterprise. However, that's just what we have now in Hope Gap and, while the piece is technically able, the outcome is again disappointing. Nevertheless, one can understand why the attempt was made because the subject matter patently means a lot to Nicholson. Set in Sussex (his own county), Hope Gap is a film adaptation of his stage play The Retreat from Moscow and that work had its roots in the real-life separation of Nicholson's parents.

 

In this new treatment the parents, Edward and Grace, are played by Bill Nighy and Annette Bening and the only other key character, their adult son Jamie, is portrayed by Josh O'Connor. With such talents on board one might have assumed that all would go well and, as photographed in colour by Anna Valdez-Hanks, the film does make excellent use of the chosen seaside location, the town of Seaford and the cliffs nearby. But even this comes at a cost since the use of the 'Scope screen which is so well suited to these exteriors feels less than wholly appropriate for what is at heart a very intimate drama. 

 

Hope Gap shows the pain that results when, after twenty-nine years of marriage, Edward, a teacher, decides to walk out on Grace. By this time, he has long since recognised that the compatibility that had seemed to mark the early years of the marriage no longer pertains but, with Grace still devoted to him despite their differences of outlook, he has chosen to let things lie. But now, having fallen in love with the mother of one of his pupils, Edward has decided to leave his wife and has chosen to tell her so during a weekend visit by their son. It is a situation not without potential to become an affecting drama be it on stage or screen, but in the event this possibility is undermined by a series of misjudgments.

 

The most crucial problem lies in the fact that as portrayed here Grace and Edward are pitiable characters but, in view of the way they behave, not very sympathetic ones. Their first scene together shows them at their least appealing which does not help and the dialogue between them for all its British understatement often smacks of the work's stage origin. References to modern technology come up late on so we are being invited to regard this as a present-day tale, but Jamie in particular suggests a young man of an earlier era (since the play was first staged in 1999 and Nicholson himself is now 72 one can see how this weakness came about). Grace is portrayed as a Catholic but the religious emphasis (music from a Mozart Mass is heard) again smacks of the past, yet no comment is made when she considers acting in a manner that hardly fits with her beliefs. The title that Nicholson gave to the play relates to references that Edward makes in class to Napoleon's retreat in 1812 and this implies that he believes that that historical tragedy provides a fit comparison with Edward's withdrawal from his life with Grace. The notion is preposterous. As for Edward's reminiscence about how he and Grace first met, it contains banal symbolism about catching the wrong train.

 

The players do their best and offer some compensation for the failings of the piece. However, later scenes seem increasingly artificial while Grace's love of poetry leads to quotes that seem nearer to banality than to profundity as used here. Viewers able to identify closely with the central characters may find it more compelling, but if you want to see a film of genuine depth drawn from real life and featuring a son and his elderly parents you should seek out Tom Browne's neglected Radiator (2014) which is a favourite of mine and is available on iTunes.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Annette Bening, Bill Nighy, Josh O'Connor, Aiysha Hart, Ryan McKen, Joe Citro, Sally Rogers, Nicholas Burns, Steven Pacey, Finn Bennett, Nicholas Blane, Rose Keegan, Derren Litten.

 

Dir William Nicholson, Pro Sarada McDermott and David M. Thompson, Screenplay William Nicholson, Ph Anna Valdez-Hanks, Pro Des Simon Rogers, Ed Pia Di Ciaula, Music Alex Heffes, Costumes Suzanne Cave, Dialect coach Penny Dyer.

 

Sampsonic Media/Immersiverse/Lipsync/Origin Pictures/Protagonist Pictures-Curzon Artificial Eye.
100 mins. UK. 2019. Rel: 28 August 2020. Available in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema. Cert. 12A.