LFF 2019: Hope Gap Review
What a strange curio this new film from writer-director William Nicholson is; a drama that seems to pull in a different direction every ten minutes. A glimpse at the synopsis presents the image of a classy thespian drama: Josh O’Connor (rising star of God’s Own Country) plays Jamie, a web designer who returns home to find his father, Edward (Bill Nighy) preparing to leave his wife of 29 years, Grace (Annette Bening). One pictures a biting, maybe austere picture that pits the parents against each other in a steely battle of words.
An opening of soft, lilting piano music as Anna Valdez-Hanks’ camera pans across surprisingly blue English shores says otherwise, as does the first glance of Grace happily greeting a stranger along the cliffs. The gap of the title is a bay of rock pools below the cliffs of Seaford, in and around which Jamie played as a child. The film returns to the bay in sweeping montages several times, always imbued with a narration from one of the three central characters.
Once Jamie is back into his childhood home, the tone shifts to a more quiet, extraordinarily well-played series of conversations and vignettes between the three. Everything about what goes wrong is to do with what is not being said, largely by Edward: when Grace questions him about the foundations of their marriage, he is noncommittal, and when she breaks down in the wake of his revelation, he sits in his bedroom, still and silent. How close to home these observations strike will entirely depend on the viewer’s own experience, but one or more had this critic clutching his notepad to quell cringes of recognition.
What a shame, then, that the third mode of address in this thoroughly muddled film is an odd spring of insipid narration concerning everything from the poetry of W.B. Yeats to Napoleon’s retreat from Russia; as if the screenplay for a Terrence Malick film was delivered to the production team for BBC’s Coast. “It was brutal, but necessary for survival” muses Edward, Nighy delivering the metaphor (and indeed, every other line) in his default hushed drawl.
Bening has a lot of fun with the role of scorned wife, though her performance occasionally makes a left turn into Fatal Attraction territory; all bulging eyes and waspish laughter. She is also lumped with her fair share of ungainly voiceover work, not least in one spectacularly misjudged sequence in which, having attended a Remembrance service, Grace muses that the wives whose husbands were killed in battle had the easier predicament.
And, stuck in the middle, is O’Connor - this film will hopefully continue his ascendance to stardom, as he is the strongest of all three leads. There is much to empathise with in his precise portrayal of the awkwardness that comes with attempting to broker peace between rowing parents. He even manages to sell some of the more ear-scraping dialogue, as the line between poor writing and the stupid things one might come up with to talk their mother down from a cliff face is a blurred one.
It’s Hope Gap’s own muddied construction that ultimately fails it: often very funny (a scene in a solicitor’s office is delightfully scabrous) but equally as grating. The overriding emotion is neither sadness nor jollity, but that of frustration - it may have found favour as a Sunday night mini-series for the small screen but in cinematic display, its flaws are as clear as the Seaford skies.
Hope Gap plays at the London Film Festival from Friday, 4th October