Annette Bening always plays characters who are refreshingly complicated; women who you can see thinking, listening, changing. In “Hope Gap,” an elegant three-character drama from playwright/filmmaker William Nicholson (“Shadowlands”), she’s handed a great role: Grace, a British woman of letters (retired, she’s editing a poetry anthology) who’s stunned when her husband of 29 years, Edward (Bill Nighy), announces over tea and toast that he’s leaving her for another woman. The third character isn’t that woman, who we barely meet, but Grace and Edward’s grown son, Jamie (Josh O’Connor), who sadly watches the implosion in his parents’ marriage as if viewing bad news on television; trying to look away, but unable.
There’s nothing at all unusual about this kind of story, which has been fodder for countless movies, plays and books before this one. But Nicholson sets “Hope Gap” in a picture-perfect seaside town — the white cliffs seem to symbolize how Grace’s marriage has suddenly fallen away — and centers it on three intelligent people coping with something both everyday and devastating. His writing is economical, telling us much without words; note how, in Jamie’s matter-of-fact putting away of the dishes Grace has thrown in rage, we learn everything about how this young man grew up; how Grace keeps seeing visions of Edward around the house after he has left, the way you think you’ve seen a peek of a beloved household pet who has died; how the beige plainness of Edward’s new home speaks volumes about what he might have been looking for.
And Nicholson’s language is often, as befits a playwright, poetic. Just try not to have your heart broken as Bening murmurs, in her dusky British accent, about waking up — “that moment, coming out of the confusion of dreams, and you think maybe it’s not true, maybe he’s lying there after all, and you turn your head on the pillow and he’s not there.”
“Hope Gap” is a deeply sad film, and maybe not what a lot of us are in the mood for these days, but it’s ultimately uplifting, in its quiet way. “The thing about unhappiness is that after a while, it stops being interesting,” Grace muses; she’s finding, in her own complicated fashion, a way to move on.
★★★½ “Hope Gap,” with Annette Bening, Bill Nighy, Josh O’Connor. Written and directed by William Nicholson. 101 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language. Opens March 13 in multiple theaters.