“WE ASKED for mercy 17 times today,” Grace (Annettte Bening) remarks on returning from church in Hope Gap (Cert. 12A). “After a while, it strikes you maybe I need it.” She never spoke a truer word. To her surprise (not ours), her husband, Edward (Bill Nighy), says he’s leaving. We’ve already witnessed a mutual dissatisfaction with their 29 year-old marriage. The more Grace presses for signs of devotion, the further Edward retreats — a key word here.
The Roman Catholic writer-director William Nicholson (credits include Shadowlands) bases the film on his play The Retreat from Moscow. Edward, a history teacher, informs students that only 20,000 of Napoleon’s 450,000 army survived. The trick was not to look back. In a somewhat grandiose comparison, Edward likens his exit strategy to those who survived only by ignoring the multitude starving or freezing to death. Though not without pain himself, he considers it merciful to release him and his wife from their misery. She doesn’t agree. In keeping with church teaching, marriage is, for her, an indissoluble bond.
One of her means of survival is through repeated visits to Hope Gap on the Sussex coast, where happier times were spent. Another is the poetry anthology that she is compiling. The script, peppered with gobbets of verse, includes one by Henry King, Bishop of Chichester at the time of the Civil War. A funeral ode to his late wife gives hope that she and Edward will ultimately reunite: “I am content to live Divided, with but half a heart, Till we shall meet and never part.” We are being supported, Grace believes, all the day long of this troublous life by divine mercy.
She recognises emotional turmoil as intrinsic to human existence, and, just to make the point, quotes Arthur Clough’s “Say not the struggle nought availeth, The labour and the wounds are vain.” The trouble is that Grace doesn’t recognise that she needs saving from own abrasive and destructive self. Josh O’Connor (Mr Elton in Emma, Arts, 21 February 2020) plays their son, Jamie, who strives to bring healing to both parties. He is a bit of a mess himself, untouchable, like his parents. If the secret of staying in love is communication, then nobody here is much good at it. Grace tries, but it is all anguished self-pity.
Interestingly, on stage, Bening’s character was called Alice, with allusions, perhaps, to someone falling down a rabbit hole into a bewilderingly alien landscape. Now as the renamed Grace, she slowly draws on an inner spiritual strength as she reflects on the nature of their relationship. “You sneaked away when I wasn’t looking,” she tells Edward. He exonerates himself by attributing their marriage to getting on the wrong train and thereby meeting Grace.
The gap in hope pervading much of the film requires filling with something over and beyond their own resources. The soundtrack (not exactly subtle) is punctuated with the Kyrie from Mozart’s Great Mass. As viewers, we yearn for that mercy to be provided by something more than just this. Although the film is too wordy at times, bearing evidence of its theatrical origins, we will not be disappointed.
Available on Curzon Home Cinema