By Leah Greenblatt
March 04, 2020 at 12:04 PM EST
Robert Viglasky/Roadside Attractions/Screen Media

How can someone leave you if you refuse to let them go? Hope isn’t so much a thing that floats as the gap between one woman’s will and her reality in William Nicholson’s melancholy, close-aired divorce drama — a sort of British Marriage Story for boomers, with only one side, really, of the story to tell.

Annette Bening’s Grace seems to be the boss of everything in her modest household, a shabby-sweet cottage nestled near the southern edge of some picturesque English coast. Her husband, Edward (Bill Nighy), is the easy one in the relationship, or maybe it’s just so much easier for him to pretend to be.

Because Edward, it turns out, has been living a life of quiet desperation for decades; so when the twentysomething Jamie (The Crown’s excellent Josh O’Connor) return from London for a much-heralded weekend at home, he uses his only son as a sort of human shield against Grace, and breaks the news to her that he’s leaving after 29 years.

What Grace wants is a fight — to wrestle their union onto the ground, and not stop throttling it like a piñata till all the truths fall out. But the only thing Edward wants is to slip away and be gone. (And not, it turns out, toward some sexier, more exotic version of late midlife, but a more peaceful one: He’s fallen in love with the thoroughly ordinary mother of one of his students at school.)

If Bening’s genteel British accent sometimes feels a little wobbly, her character is by far the most vivid force in the film. A housewife whose pet project for many years has been the compiling of a book of verse that contains the whole range of human experience, she’s a woman who seems to be bursting to live in the world, but has poured all that chaos and passion into books instead — and the countless small acts of control she can manage to wrangle at home.

Veteran character actor Nighy, who brings so much droll, fantastically layered life to nearly every role, registers mostly as a sort of mournful ghost here. To him, their marriage was the cosmic mistake of a moment (they met, literally, because she boarded the wrong train) that he’s somehow find himself stuck in for more than half a lifetime.

That largely leaves O’Connor’s kind-hearted Jamie to be the foil for his furious, grieving mother; even his bluntest words of wisdom, though, hardly seem to touch her. She’ll accept nothing less than full capitulation from everyone, and on her terms.

Her raging is more than understandable, but its relentlessness has the effect of putting the viewer more often in Edward or Jamie’s mind than her own, which is problematic when the movie’s exploration of their inner lives is so often pushed aside for her own.

Nicholson, who has two Oscar screenwriting nods (for 1994’s Shadowlands and 2000’s Gladiator), unfurls his story delicately, and suffuses the movie's sweeping shots of British seaside with a kind of lovely, magic-hour glow. It’s too bad that, like her husband and son, you too often end up wishing that Grace could leave the fugue of her unhappiness behind, and step out into the light. B

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