★★☆☆☆

Veteran scribe William Nicholson returns to the screen in his first feature directorial credit since 1997’s Firelight. Now on directing duties too, Nicholson explores the perils and heartbreak of middle-aged divorce with Hope Gap. Nicholson has form with writing later-life relationships, so it’s a shame that the real hope gap here is that between expectation and reality.

The eponymous ‘hope gap’ is a real-life cove on the picturesque East Sussex coast. It’s also the site where the film’s erstwhile narrator and grown-up son, Jamie (an inert Josh O’Connor) spent his childhood. From the way Jamie portentously intones the spot, anyone would think it’s the only place in the world where bucket-wielding kiddies can jam their fingers into rock pool-dwelling sea anemones. Given that it’s the title of the film, we might think that the conveniently-named locale might play a larger part in the drama to come: luckily, the place barely features in the rest of the narrative, save for a few pretty helicopter shots and one sentimental clifftop moment between Jamie and and his mother, Grace (Annette Benning).

Hope Gap’s biggest draw is without a doubt its cast: the aforementioned O’Connor is a sure pull for the respectable British indie crowd, while Benning and Nighy are, on paper, a sure-fire hit for this piece’s intended Radio-Timesy audience. Benning is basically brilliant in everything and who doesn’t love watching Bill Nighy – playing Benning’s beleaguered husband Edward – Bill Nighy-it up in whatever he’s doing.

There’s little pleasure, then, in reporting that the latter is really the only one of the three that emerges with anything approaching authenticity or dimension. His Edward is spineless but recognisable – even empathetic – in his snivelling apologies and dreams of a bland life. Grace, unfortunately, has few such depths. It’s as if she is defined entirely by her relation to Edward and Jamie – nagging Edward for his constant ‘wiki-ing’ (seriously, has anyone ever actually used that phrase?) – and upending the kitchen table to get a reaction out of him, while fawning over how grown-up Jamie has become. Good grief, she even names the dog after Edward.

We’re told that Grace is a creative soul nourished by her faith and driven by her passion, but except for one scene of her at early Mass, we see precious little of either. It’s as if she disappears as soon as the men in her life leave the room. Indeed, it’s telling that the Mass scene is the only instance where we spend any time at all alone with her. Perish the thought, but only a man could make a film about a left woman that cares more about the leaver.

Hope Gap opens with Grace in flashback – in one of its few inventive touches, played at the same age as the rest of the film – while she watches a young Jamie plays on the beach. Again, it’s telling that a scene that should be from her perspective is told from her son’s, as the adult Jamie ponders whether children ever really consider their mothers’ interior pain. Perhaps they don’t, but it might have been nice if the film had.

Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm