Annette Bening steals the show in an otherwise patchy Hope Gap

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      Starring Annette Bening. Rated PG

      Some terrific acting brings needed flavour to an undercooked story in Hope Gap, named for a real place on the south coast of England, where three sad-sack characters need all the metaphorical help they can get.

      Annette Bening steals the show as ironically named Grace, a bulldozer of a woman whose intellectual skills have seemingly justified her total command over slump-shouldered husband Edward (Bill Nighy, nicely playing against quick-witted type). A history teacher near retirement, Edward has summoned London-based son Jamie (Emma.’s Josh O’Connor) to their oceanside cottage—bright but cluttered with books and curios—to help soften the blow that will be delivered when he announces that he will leave his wife of almost 30 years. Thanks, Dad!

      Grace thought everyone was happy because she was having fun, and doesn’t take such a sudden rupture well. “Just because there’s no blood,” she seethes, “doesn’t mean it isn’t murder.” Bening’s accent is good scene by scene, but takes a wide tour of the British Isles throughout the film, which is packed with enough references to English poetry and literature to suggest more profundity than is actually delivered in this second directorial effort from veteran writer William Nicholson, who scripted such grandiose period pieces as Gladiator, Unbroken, and Les Misérables.

      He adapted this from his play The Retreat From Moscow, named after the Wikipedia entry Edward is currently writing, and the movie remains stagebound, despite much furious walking along the white cliffs of Seaford. There’s considerable wit on display, but little in the way of character detail and background that would distinguish this marital breakdown from countless others.

      Jamie’s urban subplot, which consists entirely of him complaining to techie coworkers about his poor romantic skills, is so feeble it could easily have been cut out altogether. The son’s a stand-in for the director himself, so you’d think he’d want more presence out of O’Connor, even mopier here than he was as Prince Charles in this season of The Crown. If the movie is Nicholson’s revenge, or resolution, for his own parental crackup a half-century ago, the dish has long since grown cold.