Sunday, 23 September 2012

Review: Hope Springs

Date night! We went to Pizza Hut, stuffed ourselves with pizza and salad, had deep and silly conversations about the world around us, and went to the cinema to see Hope Springs, which we chose over Paranorman because, although Mark Kermode said nice things about Paranorman, it didn't seem as date-like as Hope Springs. Next time we're free on a Wednesday, maybe it'll be Paranorman's term. I love a good animation, and apparently it's got the same darkness that Coraline had, makes it even more tempting.

So, Hope Springs. I hadn't seen the trailer, but C said it looked fun, and I'll watch anything with Meryl Streep in it. It's partly because she's brilliant, and a little because I think she's incredibly beautiful. In this she plays a late middle-age wife, Kay, to Tommy Lee Jones's grumpy Arnold. The couple have been married for 31 years and have lost any form of intimacy. Although they eat together, they rarely talk, and they sleep in separate bedrooms. Arnold seems to accept this, but Kay longs for something more, and finally in desperation she books them into an intensive couples' therapy course in far-off Maine. (There be spoilers ahead.)

It's a funny little film. It's kind of formulaic and saccharine, but at the same time there's a real poignancy and tragedy to it, as well as some brilliantly awkward physicality between the two leads. The counsellor is played by Steve Carell, and the film is rather claustrophobic in that there's rarely anyone in the shot other than those three. There's a scene where Kay goes to a bar and bonds with the barmaid, and a scene where the pair have dinner in a fancy hotel. There are a few scenes at Arnold's office, and a couple of scenes where their children provide a backdrop for their lifeless marriage. But for the most part, the film is sparsely populated, rather quiet and intense, punctuated by awkward silences whilst Kay and Arnold try to answer the counsellor's questions.

In a way the film is terribly banal. Kay and Arnold's issues seem like they have been compiled from a list of "problems that long-term couples have". Kay longs for Arnold to touch her, both sexually and casually, and worries that he isn't attracted to her anymore because she's old and has had children. Arnold watches too much sport and has the same thing for breakfast every single day, which Kay makes, puts on the table in front of him, and then clears away while he goes to work. Arnold buys Kay gifts for the house like a hot water heater, and for their 31st wedding anniversary they "got each other the new cable subscription". Arnold is a partner at an accounting firm where his friend counsels him to keep his wife happy, otherwise she might leave him and then he'll be miserable and alone like he is; Kay works in a clothes shop where her friend advises her that marriages can't be changed: you're married to who you married, and that's that. The couple have to learn how to be intimate with each other, and that's as painful as it sounds. Obviously I can't speak for late middle-age people in stagnant long-term relationships, but to me it seems a bit cliched. Perhaps I'm wrong. In a way the film's banality is its strength: there's no dramatic reveal, no hidden trauma at the centre of their marriage. They have just spent so long together that they have forgotten how to really be together.

My main problem with this film, though, is its portrayal of the couple's sex life. They haven't had sex in a long time, and the film opens with Kay psyching herself up in the mirror to go into her husband's room and suggest that they sleep together. He is confused - "Why?" - and puts her off - he's tired, he's not feeling well, he had pork for lunch. She retreats to her own room. This sets the tone for the film, and introduces what seems to be one of the main issues in their marriage. Arnold isn't interested in sex or physical intimacy with his wife, whilst Kay craves both. I liked this, as it subverts the more familiar narrative of the sexually deprived husband and the "frigid" wife. However, this disruption is undermined by the later reveal that Arnold has retreated from his wife sexually because she lost interest in sex after their children were born. It is also made clear in their therapy sessions that Kay is stereotypically straitlaced when it comes to sex: she is rather inexperienced, especially in anything other than missionary position. She has never performed oral sex, although Arnold has asked her to, and doesn't understand when the therapist asks if she has ever received it. She is at a loss when he asks about her fantasies, explaining that she fantasises only about her husband and past sexual experiences with him. Arnold, on the other hand, is revealed as a 'typical man', awkwardly describing his fantasies of threesomes and getting a blowjob under his desk at work.

Their fumbling attempts to reawaken their sexuality are sweet and excruciatingly awkward, seemingly avoiding blaming either partner more than the other, but by the end of the film when, via some false starts, they have succeeded in rekindling their lost ardour, Kay is shown to be the one who has had to change most. This is illustrated by her reaction to seeing a neighbour that Arnold had admitted he fantasised about joining them in a threesome. Kay had been wide-eyed with shock, but on seeing the neighbour now that everything is rosy, she is giggly and mischievous, inviting the neighbour to come over later to see their holiday snaps, and then laughingly telling a shocked Arnold "That's not happening!" So, while she's still not actually up for a threesome, the point is that she's now relaxed enough to joke about it. The film ends here, and although I left feeling uplifted - you can hardly fail to be uplifted by Meryl Streep's laughing face - I can't help but feel a little disappointed by its closing message. Despite all the sweet awkwardness and lovely performances and apparent disruption of some overused narratives, in the end Hope Springs falls back on that tired old trope of the repressed wife who, with the help of a therapist, frees her latent sexuality and thus solves the problem of her stagnant marriage.

Sadly it's even more disappointing than normal, since the film set me up to believe that the problem was Arnold's sexuality rather than Kay's, allowing a faint hope that the narrative would truly be disrupted. It was a huge letdown to discover that what looked like Arnold's repression was in fact just a response to Kay's repression: the problems began with her. She wasn't exciting enough sexually to begin with, and then she compounded the issue by withdrawing from Arnold after having children due to her (completely unfounded, apparently) belief that he no longer found her sexy. That's not new. That's not progressive or disruptive. It's profoundly boring, in fact.

The sexual - and romantic - journey of the pair has more complexity than I have painted here. Arnold is not given a pass for his part in their stagnation, and there is more to their lack of intimacy than sex. It's not all bad. There are some truly sweet and sad moments as the couple struggle to rediscover each other. It's just a little bit disappointing, after the initial hope that a new story was being told, to find that in fact, when it comes to sex at least, it's the same story we've seen a thousand times before.

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