As much as this dreary drama looks like a movie, it's not: It's a play. It's only cinematic element is the sweeping landscape photography that turns the crisp, cold beauty of Seaford, Sussex, into a metaphor for Grace's chilly marriage. Speaking of Grace, in that role, Bening proves she's a director's fairy godmother: You can hand her a mousy script, and she'll turn in a performance so heartrending, ferocious, and original that the film transforms. (Her British accent here is a shock, but she nails it, of course -- which prompts the realization that if she really were a Brit, we'd be calling her Dame by now.) Her co-stars turn in equally remarkable performances, but they have less to work with. Nighy's Edward is a mild, reserved teacher who volunteers as a Wikipedia contributor for fun: When he falls in love with another woman, he finds the crutch to leave his wife, but only by using his adult son as a shield. And Jamie is a chip off the old block, also shrinking in the presence of his mother, a woman who shows her love by picking at and hammering her family.
But unfortunately Hope Gap is all talk and no action. The characters' conversations could take place anywhere -- like, say, a stage. In fact, it's adapted from one of writer-director William Nicholson's own plays. A two-time Academy Award-nominated screenwriter (Gladiator, Shadowlands), Nicholson may be too close to the material. The movie is based on his own parents' divorce after 33 years of marriage. Certainly, it's possible to pull off a talky film about divorce -- see Marriage Story and The Squid and the Whale -- but this attempt lacks the levity and relatability of those scripts. Perhaps Hope Gap's biggest contribution will be marking the point where moviegoers finally start saying, "Well, that director's no Noah Baumbach."