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TORONTO 2019 Special Presentations

Review: Hope Gap

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- Despite some likeable performances, this light-hearted drama about a marriage breaking up late in life feels contrived

Review: Hope Gap
Bill Nighy in Hope Gap

A film about a marriage breaking up after 33 years could be just about the saddest thing imaginable, second only to one about a marriage ending after 45 Years [+see also:
film review
trailer
Q&A: Andrew Haigh
film profile
]
. The harsh reality of suddenly being alone at an age where it becomes harder to meet new people is terrifying; the implications that the separation creates about the past are unbearable. But rather than focusing on the shock of the event or dwelling on the misery of it, British director and celebrated screenwriter William Nicholson chooses to address the break-up by circling around it until enough time has passed for it to be seen in a more reasonable light.

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At the beginning of Hope Gap [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, presented in the Special Presentations section of the Toronto International Film Festival, Edward (Bill Nighy) and Grace (Annette Bening) make up what comes across as your typical elderly British couple. She is on the eccentric side, reciting poetry when she isn’t talking about anything in particular that might be crossing her mind; he is quiet, the tea-maker of the house, and always happy with whatever she wants to do.

Except when she wants him to have a real opinion. To fight back, to be more than just her servant or her pet. Seeing the rather cute tableau of the couple gently bickering develop into an intense, one-sided confrontation brutally shatters our preconceptions about these two people. The rest of the film continues this work of excavating, from under 33 years of assumptions and expectations, the true faces of Edward and Grace. But it does so much more gently, through their one-on-one conversations with their adult son Jamie (Josh O'Connor).

Though he lives in London and “has his own life”, Jamie soon finds himself making regular trips back to his hometown of Seaford to talk to both of his parents. When his father tells him he is leaving his mother for another woman, Jamie is shocked, but not devastated. It is unusual and refreshing to see such a dramatic life change treated with such pragmatism: Jamie is more concerned with his parents’ individual happiness than he is with them staying together. This could be because, as an adult himself, Jamie has long stopped perceiving his parents as a single entity.

It could also be due to the fact that mum and dad are, to put it frankly, running out of time. As father and son talk, it is soon made clear that Edward’s sudden decision wasn’t so sudden: he had been unhappy for a long time, and he doesn’t want to waste any more of it. There are so many hypotheses that the film does not so much explore as briefly (though repeatedly) touch on in scenes of contrived conversations, the overwritten dialogue requiring our extreme attention. The sensitive and likeable performances from the cast (Bill Nighy, in particular, is impressively subtle) only just about save what is often an irritatingly oblique and repetitive film. Striving hard not to be simplistic in its diagnosis of the characters, Hope Gap ends up being shapeless and monotonous; moments of clear narrative progress are as satisfying as they are rare. The insertion of poems, via Grace, further underlines the strained construction of the narrative and, indeed, the gap between the film’s ambitions and the reality of its execution.

Hope Gap was produced by the UK’s Origin Pictures and Protagonist Pictures, with backing from Screen Yorkshire. Protagonist Pictures is handling its sales.

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