Annette Bening lets it rip as Grace, a bile-spewing wife who keeps coming so hard at her reserved husband Edward (Bill Nighy) that she’s practically daring him to leave her. When, after 29 years, he finally gets up the nerve to do just that, all hell breaks loose. Edward and Grace are academics — he teaches history; she’s assembling an anthology of great poems that deal with the traumas of life. Hope Gap is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? set in the British countryside, with marriage a duel to the death. Screenwriter-director William Nicholson was Oscar nominated for the script he co-wrote for Gladiator, but the bloodletting here beats anything in the Roman arena. It’s emotional rather than literal, of course. And the pair’s grown son, Jamie (a very fine Josh O’Connor), is caught in the middle of the hostilities. A leap off the jagged white cliffs that loom outside this couple’s seaside Tudor home couldn’t do more damage than Grace and Edward inflict on each other.
Hope Gap is a deeply personal project for Nicholson, who is performing an autopsy on the marriage of his own parents, with him as the son trying to be faithful and fair to both combatants. First presented on stage in 1999 as The Retreat from Moscow, using a Napoleonic disaster as a metaphor for his parents’ split, Hope Gap comes to the screen with its theatrical origins seeping through every scene. The staginess of characters reciting monologues at each other can make for a static and off-putting experience.
But Nicholson has anatomized a relationship before, in his superb 1993 film adaptation of his play Shadowlands, about the real-life love connection between Oxford don, born-again Christian, and Narnia chronicler C.S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins) and the married poet Joy Gresham (Debra Winger). And once again he is blessed with his actors. What Hopkins and Winger did to blow away stage-bound mustiness, Bening and Nighy accomplish in Hope Gap with equally brilliant assurance. Nighy, playing a man stooped in submission, finds the fire to suggest that Edward won’t mind looking ridiculous for a shot at happiness with another woman. “The way I am seems to suit her,” he tells his son with rending simplicity. There is nothing simple about Grace, whose verbal assaults are wounding to husband and son. “You’re no good at making people love you,” she cruelly tells Jamie, before lashing out at Edward for his “sneaking, two-faced, marital treachery.” As Grace sees it, her Catholic God has deserted her. She swings from thoughts of suicide to working a grief hotline for people more depressed than she is. In an example of the film’s acid humor, Grace adopts a dog she names Edward and brings to heel with commands of “stay.”
It’s a bear of a role, soaked in rage and self-pity. Yet Bening, a magnificent actress in peak form, never runs from the challenge of finding the wounded heart of a woman who can’t or won’t let go. As a film, Hope Gap is indelible and infuriating in equal measure, often at odds with itself and the demands of an audience. But in coming to terms with his parents and the role they play in shaping in life, even after death, Nicholson speaks to something universal: the comedy and tragedy of the human condition.