Deborah Ross

Star quality

Star quality
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Hope Springs

12A, Nationwide

Hope Springs is a comedy drama about a long-term marriage that has effectively stalled, and is one of those films that is only as good as its stars. Luckily, in this instance, the stars are Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones. Meryl, we know about. I once had dinner with Meryl, and have talked of little else since, until I realised it got on everybody’s nerves, but have gaily continued nonetheless. She is the greatest film actress of her generation, our generation, any generation. She could play my left shoe, if she put her mind to it. She may even be playing my left shoe right now. How would I know? But Mr Lee Jones? (I don’t feel matey enough to call him by his first name.) He has a face like an old-style leather football that’s been left out in the rain, year after year. He usually plays those remote, taciturn, weathered No Country for Old Men types. But, in this, he is adorable! So cute! I’d bring him home and ravish him, if I didn’t have my own dead marriage to think about. Although, as it simply lies there, we could just step over it, I suppose.

This is directed by David Frankel, who also directed Meryl, with whom I’ve had dinner, in The Devil Wears Prada, which showed she could be wickedly funny as well as moving and substantial. Here, Meryl (who smells lovely, up close) plays Kay, a home-maker who works part-time and is married to Arnold, an accountant. They have been married for 31 years. They live in Omaha. Their children are grown up and have fled the nest. Kay makes Arnold the same breakfast every morning: one egg, sunny side up, and one rasher of bacon. He reads the newspaper throughout, then heads off to work, perhaps after giving her a perfunctory kiss on the cheek and saying something curt, like, ‘Back at six.’ At night, he falls asleep in front of the golf channel while she tries to get his attention. Eventually, they go up to bed, but not the same bed. They sleep in separate rooms.

Arnold thinks everything is fine. This is what he assumes marriage is, after so many years. But Kay is lonely and unhappy, and longs for the intimacy they used to have. To this end, she books them in for a week of intensive marriage therapy in Great Hope Springs, Maine. Arnold is horrified, and outraged, Arnold doesn’t want to talk about his feelings. He may not even wish to have any. Arnold is full of anger and, as it turns out, a skinflint. But he agrees to accompany Kay if only to keep the peace.

Their therapist is Bernie Feld, as played by Steve Carell, who, perhaps to prove he isn’t merely suited to outright comedy, plays it absolutely straight, which is a little spooky. Feld quizzes them on when they last had sex. Do they masturbate? Do they have fantasies? (Their faces are a picture.) He gives them daily exercises which, to start with, simply involve having to put their arms around each other, although this isn’t so simple, as it turns out. But do they thaw? Reconnect? Will they, after a five-year famine, have sex again? Come on. Is the Pope Catholic? Or, as I prefer to say these days: didn’t I once have dinner with Meryl?

This is a gently paced film, with no real action to speak of, and, aside from a particular Corgi gag (very funny), no real jokes to speak of either. In fact, most of the humour lies in the silences, as this is a script (as written by Vanessa Taylor) that isn’t frightened of silences, and so much the better. But it’s the acting that ultimately holds your attention. It may even be that, without it, the film’s attitude to sex would seem rather adolescent, and its preoccupations trifling. It may even be that, without such acting, you would want to say to Kay, ‘Oh, go learn bridge, like everyone else with a dead marriage, and get over it.’ But Meryl, in her heartbreakingly matchy-matchy outfits, exudes such unhappiness and loneliness it seems as if it’s urgent, while Mr Lee Jones is a total surprise. Who knew he could do shy and vulnerable and sexy, and could deliver a smile that is like all the flowers in the world suddenly blooming. Did you? Bet not. He is perfect opposite Meryl, with whom I once had dinner. She was nice.