Stars: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell, Jean Smart, Elisabeth Shue, Mimi Rogers, Ben Rappaport, Marin Ireland, Patch Darragh and Brett Rice.
Writer: Vanessa Taylor
Director: David Frankel.
All hail Columbia Pictures and the creative pairing of director David Frankel and writer Vanessa Taylor for delivering unto us Hope Springs. This exploration of waning intimacy and its consequences in a decades-old marriage carries with it, quite unintentionally, the giddy thrill of an Inception or a Being John Malkovich, so invigoratingly unique is the experience of watching a well-crafted, contemporary mature-age drama on-screen.
In a perfect film-going world, it would not be such cause for celebration when an American film arrives that explores with grace, humour and insight the emotional and physical state of a 31 year-old marriage gone stagnant. But this wonderful drama (and a drama it most definitely is, despite the ‘old-people-acting-cute’ comedy pitch of the trailer) is definitely an anomaly in a marketplace littered with films pitched to the under 20 demographic.
As Kay, Meryl Streep offers her least mannered, most engagingly human performance in a long while as the 60-something middle-class housewife who has become consumed by a yearning to reinvigorate her marriage. Her husband is career accountant Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones), a man well settled into his autumn years, experiencing life via his favourite chair and golf coaching programs (a passion although, tellingly, we never see him playing).
Out of a growing desperation, Kay books a week in Maine for them both, where they will undergo couples therapy with author and counsellor Dr Feld (a wonderfully understated Steve Carell, exhibiting a heretofore unseen maturity – there’s that word again!). Over several days, they explore memories of better times, stronger longings and hard-to-face facts about who they have become and what they now mean to each other.
Taylor’s text allows for a few awkward giggles at the character’s expense, but there is not a cheap laugh to be found in Hope Springs. Frankel displays a pathos and empathy with profound themes the likes of which his hit The Devil Wears Prada only hinted at and his miss The Big Year handled all too awkwardly. Taylor, writing her feature debut, doggedly commits to a truth in her storytelling that, frankly, is remarkable in a studio picture in 2012; the scenes in Dr Feld’s office are pitch-perfect in their revealing of Kay and Arnold’s deeply layered existence. A motel-room shot at rekindling their passion is heartbreakingly staged (both actors reveal much, both emotionally and physically).
Jones should be in line for an Oscar nomination; so should Taylor’s script. So to Streep, though her sublime skill at underplaying Kay is not as grandly showy as the Academy seems to like in her work. The blink-and-miss presence of quality actors (Elisabeth Shue, Mimi Rogers, Jean Smart) in bit parts is entirely understandable, given the pedigree of the leads and the rich words that every character is imbued with.
Frankel and Taylor don’t entirely forego some sappiness in the film’s final moments. There is a particularly poignant scene that would have been a wonderfully ambiguous endpoint, but the film pushes through it to provide some tacked-on, final-reel sweetness. It reminds the audience that Hope Springs is a Hollywood film after all, which is a bit of a shame, as everyone seemed to work so hard to differentiate this lovely story from the usual meaningless guff. Ultimately, it’s a minor quibble, due entirely to the immense good will the film engenders and emotional involvement that it delivers.