Friday, 14 September 2012

Hope Springs (2012)

Image: Momentum Pictures

It’s a sad fact that there aren’t a lot of great parts for American actresses once they reach a certain age but if any actress has managed to break this rule it’s Meryl Streep. It’s also a sad fact that there aren’t a lot of big Hollywood films that examine the sexuality of an older couple, although she’s broken that rule too with 2009’s It’s Complicated. Still, with more emphasis on the drama than the comedy, Hope Springs is quite a rare thing indeed.

Kay (Meryl Streep) has been married to Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) for 31 years and is incredibly lonely. The two sleep in separate rooms and the only time he touches her is to give her a peck on the cheek when he leaves for work. When Kay finds a book by Dr Feld (Steve Carell) on how to rekindle romance in your marriage, she tells Arnold that she’s going for a week of therapy with the author, with or without him. Arnold reluctantly joins her but can their marriage survive the airing of old grievances?

First off, as you’d expect with this cast, the performances are superb. Jones is an actor who’s been known to switch to autopilot in studio fare but paired with Streep he puts in an excellent performance. Arnold is uptight, unfriendly, and complains at length about everything. Kay is reserved, easily hurt, but determined that something has to change. At first it seems like the film is happy to keep things relatively light and keep to familiar territory but it’s when they go to Dr Feld’s sessions that Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay shows itself to be a realistic and honest depiction of two people whose increasing lack of communication through the years has led to alienation.

The therapy scenes are the film’s best, with a well-judged, quiet performance from Carell allowing Jones and Streep to play off each other. There are big laughs (Kay revealing the extent of her naïveté, Arnold revealing he fantasies about a threesome with the neighbour), it’s often tense (few actors are as good at showing a line is about to be crossed as Tommy Lee Jones), and it’s often quite moving. The script goes to some surprising and funny places as Kay and Arnold attempt Dr Feld’s exercises and try and rediscover each other’s bodies from a starting point as simple but vital as physical contact leading to increasingly sexual scenarios.

But for all the excellent dramatic work, the filmmakers don’t have the nerve to see it all the way through. Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) handles the quieter scenes between Kay and Arnold so well that it’s frustrating when the film falls back on rom-com-drama stereotypes. The soundtrack is bursting with songs that hammer home emotion the actors have just portrayed, Kay dramatically runs off at least one too many times, and Elisabeth Shue is completely wasted in a two minute scene as a down to earth barmaid who reassures Kay that nobody’s getting enough.

It’s probably a little harsh to gripe about these flaws too much, however. Jones and Streep make a great pairing during both the comedic and the dramatic scenes, the script is great, and Hope Springs is a funny, surprisingly affecting comic drama.



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