TORONTO – There is a plague festering in the world’s cinemas in 2019 and, no, it’s not superhero movies. From low budget indies to the latest from celebrated global auteurs to studio productions, contemporary film has been beset with…drones. So many drones. Drone shot after done shot it’s as though an Apple TV screensaver has been cut into a film indiscriminately. This problem has slowly percolated over the decade as drones became more commonplace and affordable to filmmakers, but has peaked this year. This tipping point was this past January in Sundance where prestige players to pseudo-edgy NEXT titles used the overhead shot to horrifying degrees. It’s gotten worse ever since. Filmmakers seem to think these statically controlled overhead shots – traditionally captured by helicopter or plane previously – somehow make their films more cinematic. Here and there it works, but overuse usually is an attempt to hide a larger problem, and that is clearly the case in William Nicholson‘s second directorial effort, “Hope Gap.”
Debuting at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, Nicholson’s remarks before the screening indicated the film’s subjects were based on his parents, and as the movie unfolds, it’s clear how personal the storyline is for him. The couple in question, Grace (Annette Bening) and Edward (Bill Nighy), live in the English coastal town of Seaford and have been married for 38 years. Their anniversary is approaching, but things are immediately amiss. As they wait for their adult son Connor (Josh O’Connor) to arrive from London for the weekend, their kitchen conversation finds Grace increasingly hostile to the almost overly polite and passive Edward. Grace clearly is trying to get her husband to react to anything (or say “I love you” and mean it) while pushing buttons that anyone else would recognize is driving them further apart.
On the page, Grace is crazy smart, witty and gregarious, but has a lack of self-awareness that is almost disconcerting. Especially when Edward (Nighy flawless as ever) decides to leave her after yet another passionate spat. Connor, much to his frustration, is thrust into the middle of this unexpected separation. One that is awkwardly timed as he’s found another one of his own relationships fade away. O’Connor wonderfully portrays Connor as a son who has his father’s cold shoulder with a dash of his mother’s temper thrown in. The movie is, thankfully, Bening’s to carry, and she wonderfully overcomes Grace’s flaws with a charismatic turn that makes her uniquely sympathetic considering the circumstances.
The problem, unfortunately, is that “Hope Gap” is based on Nicholson’s play “The Retreat from Moscow” and the proceedings never really leaves the theater. Despite the director’s attempts to throw in those aforementioned drone shots to break up the drama and make the affairs inherently more cinematic, there are few scenes that don’t seem as though they would be more intriguing played out in front of a live audience. Too much of the conflict takes place in arguments and discussions in Connor’s childhood home, more specifically the aforementioned kitchen space. It’s an age-old problem for filmmakers attempting to adapt small scale dramas to the screen. Unless the material is completely reimagined, it’s simply too difficult to break from its narrative origins.
Of course, if you’re a Benning fan, you might not care. The four-time Oscar nominee has the spotlight here, and it’s arguably the richest role she’s had in ages which is no small feat considering her resume this past decade. In fact, a Broadway revival of “Retreat” with the “Hope Gap” cast might finally see her landing that coveted Tony Award and truly be something to see. But as a movie? Not so much. [C+]
Roadside Attractions will release “Hope Gap” in the U.S. sometime in 2020.