Review: ‘Hope Gap,’ starring Annette Bening, Bill Nighy and Josh O’Connor

March 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

Bill Nighy and Annette Bening in "Hope Gap"
Bill Nighy and Annette Bening in “Hope Gap” (Photo by Robert Viglasky)

“Hope Gap” 

Directed by William Nicholson

Culture Representation: Taking place in London and Seaford, England, the emotionally intense drama “Hope Gap” is about a middle-class white family affected by a painful divorce; the estranged couple’s son confides in two friends who are people of color.

Culture Clash: The former couple are at odds because the husband wants the divorce but the wife doesn’t.

Culture Audience: “Hope Gap” will appeal primarily to fans of arthouse cinema who want to see a well-written, well-acted story about the harsh realities of divorce and the effects that divorce can have on an adult child.

Josh O’Connor and Bill Nighy in “Hope Gap” (Photo by Robert Viglasky)

The divorce drama “Hope Gap” begins with gorgeous, sweeping aerial shots of Seaford, a small Sussex city on the South Coast of England. As the camera takes in the picturesque views of the cliffsides and grassy knolls, the movie’s narrator, Jamie Axton (played by Josh O’Connor), reminisces of a simpler time in his childhood. One of his favorite childhood activities was exploring in a cove called Hope Gap, located underneath the cliffs, as his mother would wait nearby on the rocks.

As viewers soon learn, Jamie’s nostalgic memories of Hope Gap are what he’ll have to cling to when he thinks of happier times in his parents’ marriage. And who are his parents? Jamie’s mother Grace Axton (played by Annette Benning) is retired, and Jamie’s father Edward Axton (played by Bill Nighy) is a history teacher at a local high school. Grace and Edward still live in their family home (a cozy Tudor house) in Seaford. Jamie, who’s in his mid-to-late-20s, is their only child, and he lives alone in a small London apartment.

Grace and Edward’s home might look comfortable, but the emotional atmosphere is filled with turmoil. The couple will soon be celebrating their 29th wedding anniversary, and Grace is annoyed that Edward doesn’t really seem to care. She nitpicks over little things—Edward’s hobby of updating Wikipedia articles, how he gets a cup of tea—and the more she nags and prods, the more he seems to shut down emotionally. She’s also angry that Edward doesn’t want to give any input for any plans she might have to celebrate their anniversary.

It’s obvious that Grace wants Edward’s romantic attention, and she’s practically begging him to say all the right things to her. But Edward seems to be paralyzed with not knowing if he can say the right thing, because Grace criticizes so much of what he does. Grace’s constant berating makes him think that he can never do anything right with her. As irritated as Grace seems to be with Edward, she speaks lovingly of Jamie. She tells Edward how much she misses Jamie and how she wishes he would visit more.

It isn’t long before Jamie comes to visit from London. Grace immediately starts in on Jamie about his love life. He’s single and dating, but not in a serious relationship. Grace says she wants him to settle down and get married, and she worries about him living alone. Jamie tells her that he’s comfortable living by himself,  and he doesn’t seem to be in a rush to get married and have kids.

Meanwhile, Grace (who’s a very religious Christian and very opiniated) expresses disappointment when Jamie tells her that he’s become an atheist. She tries to enlist Edward in her debate with Jamie about religion, but Edward refuses to take sides. Edward tells Grace that religion isn’t a fact; it’s a belief.

Grace gets even angrier when she and Edward have a tense conversation alone together. She badgers him to tell her what will make him happier. He doesn’t really have an answer for her. He just wants to be left alone. The argument escalates when Grace asks Edward to tell her that he loves her, but he refuses. She gets so upset that she slaps him and turns over the kitchen table in a rage.

All the signs are there that Edward has emotionally checked out of their marriage. However, it still comes as a shock to Jamie the next morning when he finds out that Edward is going to leave Grace that day. Jamie gets the news when Grace has gone to church, and he and Edward are alone together.

Edward tells Jamie that he’s going to leave Grace because he’s fallen in love with another woman, they’ve been having an affair for about a year, and he’s going to move in with her. His mistress’ name is Angela (played by Sally Rogers), and she’s the mother of one of his students. Edward plans to tell Grace this devastating news when she gets home from church, and Edward doesn’t want Grace to be alone in the next few days after Edward leaves her.

It’s then that Jamie realizes that keeping his mother’s company after the breakup is the real reason why Edward invited Jamie over to visit, and Edward basically admits it. A shocked Jamie tells Edward that he wants to leave for a few hours because he doesn’t want to be at the house when Grace gets blindsided by the news. And the breakup goes about as horribly as you’d might expect.

Grace goes through the stages of grief, with denial and anger being the ones that are the hardest for her to overcome. She doesn’t want to give Edward the divorce, even though he’s offered her the house and a generous settlement. Meanwhile, Jamie is angry at his father and mostly takes Grace’s side in the breakup, even though deep down he now knows that Edward had been miserable in the marriage for many years. Jamie decides to spend more time with his mother when he can, so that she won’t feel so alone. He can barely speak to his father, and he doesn’t want to meet Angela.

As Jamie travels and back and forth between London and Seaford, the divorce starts to take an emotional toll on him too, as he sees his mother slide into a deep depression. She’s given up her hobby of collecting poems. She’s stopped caring about her personal appearance and she spends long hours staring into space. Grace also shows signs of mental instability that go beyond depression, because she leaves love notes for Edward around the house, in the delusional hope that he will change his mind and come back to her. And she gets a male Labrador Retriever puppy and names him Edward.

Jamie is somewhat of a loner, but he has two close friends he confides in about his personal problems—a couple named Jess (played by Aiysha Hart) and Dev (played by Ryan McKen). Jess and Dev, who are happily dating each other, offer some insightful advice to Jamie, because they know his dating habits, which is a side of Jamie that his parents’ don’t see. They tell Jamie that as much as he might dislike his father Edward’s seemingly aloof demeanor, Jamie can also be emotionally distant when it comes to romantic relationships, and maybe he needs to open up more.

When Jamie realizes that he’s a lot more like his father than he really wanted to admit, it prompts him to look at his parents’ divorce from a new perspective, and he starts to come to grips with how the failure of the marriage will affect his views on life. “Hope Gap” has a level of heartbreaking authenticity that isn’t seen very much in movies about divorce. That’s probably because writer/director William Nicholson went through something similar when his parents split up after nearly 30 years of marriage.

While so many movies about divorce have the divorced couple fighting over child custody, “Hope Gap” shows the perspective of an adult child of divorce who has to “choose sides” when the battle isn’t over custody but over loyalty. As the family at the center of the story, the three stars of the movie—Bening, Nighy and O’Connor—give admirable performances that are bound to pull at people’s heartstrings and tear ducts.

And the majestic seaside setting of “Hope Gap” (which is beautifully filmed by cinematographer Anna Valdez Hanks) gives added depth to the feelings of isolation, fear and wistfulness that the Axtons experience in the story. The treacherous waves that crash against the cliffs of Hope Gap are an apt metaphor for navigating the often-cruel devastation of divorce and not necessarily knowing how to survive it.

Roadside Attractions and Screen Media released “Hope Gap” in select U.S. cinemas on March 6, 2020. The movie’s digital and VOD release date is May 8, 2020.

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