‘Hope Gap’ Intimately Journeys Into the Emotional Turmoil of Divorce

Hope Gap” observes the way divorce can cause an emotional storm enveloping every participant directly connected to a relationship. Fittingly it never goes beyond three characters, a seasoned married couple and their young son. They are the only people we need to know about in this story. For writer/director William Nicholson this is art as testimonial and catharsis. Nicholson shared with Entertainment Voice about the experience of turning memories into evocative drama.

In a chilly, rural part of the U.K. a college student named Jamie (Josh O’Connor) arrives home to visit his parents. His father Edward (Bill Nighy) is a serene professor comfortable amid his books and classroom while his mother Grace (Annette Bening) has a feistier attitude. What Jamie doesn’t know is that Edward has met someone else and has realized, maybe too late in the game, that he and Grace are simply not compatible as people. She picks on him as a way to get him out of his shell and now Edward has found someone more suitable for his character. What follows simply an act of separation as Edward tells Grace it’s over while Jamie is left having to navigate between both parties, while reflecting on his own crumbling love life.

With “Hope Gap,” Nicholson delivers an elegant, dramatically engaging portrait of how marriages can break down even near twilight. Some partners realize only later in life what they need, the tragedy is that Grace doesn’t want to let go while Jamie gets caught in the emotional crossfire. There are no villains, just lives making hard choices. “I wrote it originally as a play,” said Nicholson, “I wrote it as something similar to events that had been happening to me and my parents so it has its genesis in real life. But obviously as we all know, when you do dramas you take real life and it comes out kind of different. What I’ve tried to do is cleave towards something important that I felt at the time. Both these people, my parents, were good people. This isn’t a case of an evil man abandoning a good woman or vice versa. So I was very concerned to make whatever dramatization I created tell both sides. When I started writing the play the thing that evolved was the role of the boy, myself. I kind of hadn’t expected that. I realized the boy was the pivot of the whole thing. When I developed the stage play into a film I was able to give him a more prominent role and make it work better in the movie than in the play.” Nicholson’s original stage version of “Hope Gap” has played on Broadway with marquee names like John Lithgow. “I think the film is better. I’ve been able to improve on it.”

The personal touch to the film is evident in every frame. Nicholson, who has written major films like “Gladiator” and the screen adaptation of “Les Miserables,” goes for pure intimacy. When Edward pours his heart out to Jamie, or when Grace tries to process suddenly being alone, these moments have the force of memories. “I began by building a collection of memories and stringing them together to see what that looked like. There are several memories that are lifted completely from reality. For example there’s a moment in the film, it happens down some steps, where Jamie says to his mother, and she’s thinking about killing herself, ‘don’t do it because you’ve gone on further than me. If you can cope then I can cope.’ Exactly that happened. I remember saying to my mother, ‘if you really feel so bad that you want to die then it’s not for me to stop you. However if you can cope with this it tells me that I can cope in the future.’ That was very powerful for me and it has remained so since. There are other things that didn’t happen. For example she didn’t have a dog. My mother was quite a funny person however and I did want to capture that.” 

In a sense cinema becomes catharsis. “I would go further and say that all writing is therapy for the writer. I don’t say that’s the primary purpose. But the actual effect of doing it inevitably is therapeutic, and that applies to whatever you could be writing. Even Marvel superhero movies have a personal touch.” 

The casting of “Hope Gap” helps the material become even more vivid. “I knew I wanted Annette [Benning], I wasn’t sure I’d get her. She was uncertain at first, understandably since I am not an experienced director, but we met and she was wonderful. Once she decided to do it she was totally on board. Bill Nighy I always knew I wanted.” At first Nicholson received pushback for wanting to cast Josh O’Connor. Then an unknown, now O’Connor has gained prominence for playing Prince Charles in Netflix’s “The Crown.” “He was unknown to me. I interviewed a couple of young males, who are very famous. But it was just obvious to me that Josh was the right one. I had to fight a little bit with my producers. I just knew he was perfect. When we settled down to do it I asked for a longer rehearsal time than usual. As you know there is usually no rehearsal time. We all had enough time in a rehearsal room where we really, really worked through it. It was enormously valuable. I started to see what they could bring to it. The actors think up things that I do not. They just know how to do things I just don’t know how to do. So I sit back and say ‘let’s go!’ It’s incredibly exciting. It was a five week shoot and we were crushed together. A lot of it wasn’t even shot in a proper studio but in a decommissioned factory in Northern England. We sat there in this unpromising place and bonded. It was one of the greatest experiences in my life.” 

As drama “Hope Gap” offers an intimate look into the process of coping and enduring a sudden life change. Amid more bombastic films Nicholson is sharing with us not only fiction culled from memory, but a reminder that emotions are more potent and dangerous than any special effect.

Hope Gap” opens March 6 in select theaters.