Last week, British film magazine Sight and Sound released its latest list of the so-called “greatest films ever made,” and I found it incredibly frustrating to read through. While I do not disagree with the ‘greatness’ of any of the films on the list, I do think it’s absolutely idiotic that the newest film on the Top 10 came out in 1968, and that the top 50 contains only two films from the 2000s. At the point where several generations of filmmaking have been completely ignored, any semblance of credibility has been thrown out the window. Rejecting modern filmmaking wholesale isn’t just ignorant; it’s asinine.
David Frankel’s Hope Springs is a spectacular reminder of this. It certainly isn’t one of the greatest films ever made, but it is a great movie, one that could not have been made in the time period Sight and Sound favors. It discusses, in frank, serious terms, crucial aspects of romance, sexuality, and the human condition, concepts filmmakers largely shied away from for decades in the medium’s history. In 1968, no studio would have funded a film with long, detailed conversations about an older couples’ sex life. It certainly wouldn’t have starred several of the most respected and well-known actors in the industry. Most importantly, no regard would ever be given to the feelings of the wife, for past generations of film largely presented women in extremely concrete, constricted social roles.
Yet Hope Springs does all these things and more, and it is allowed to do so because filmmaking has evolved, and the ideas filmmakers use the medium to explore have evolved. It is thoroughly modern, a film that is open and honest and truly, deeply painful at every turn. It is less interested in entertaining than in enlightening, in sharing authentic experiences with the viewer and allowing us to go on a profound journey of truly human proportions. It could not have been made decades earlier. I can scarcely believe it was produced today. But it exists, and it is wonderful, and it deserves every bit of praise I can heap on it.
The film stars Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as Kay and Arnold, an older married couple who, after 30 years together, have lost the ‘spark.’ Attempting to reignite their romance, a desperate Kay signs herself and her husband up for intensive couples counseling with the renowned Dr. Bernie Fields (Steve Carrell) in a small, far-away town.
That’s a set-up many films have employed, but what sets Hope Springs apart is that it takes this concept seriously. It’s not a comedy, and it’s not high-concept. Kay and Arnold need help, and they’ve reached out to someone who can assist them. That’s it. There are no hijinks, or sudden twists, or narrative contrivances. The film focuses solely on what Kay and Arnold are going through, and extremely long stretches are contained to Dr. Fields’ office as he guides them through the counseling process.
The level of restraint on display is impressive, and the film’s precise, laser-focus allows a greater depth of characterization than most films ever approach. Kay and Arnold each feel like real people, flawed and complex in subtle, tangible ways. Kay is obviously the more sympathetic figure, for she’s the one who feels most stifled in the marriage. Arnold is neglectful and cold, so wrapped up in his own routine that he’s long since forgotten what it means to be a loving, present husband. He’s not a bad man – deep down, he’s probably very good – but he carries a great deal of anger in his heart, directed at himself as much as anyone else, and he has no understanding of how to express his own emotions. So he internalizes everything, and at the time the film opens, Kay has been completely shut out. She’s lonely and depressed, feeling utterly invisible and insignificant, and for her, Dr. Fields is a last ditch effort to get not just her marriage, but her life, back on track.
This is the baggage the characters take with them to counseling, and it is in Dr. Fields office that the film becomes truly fascinating. The level of blunt, painful honesty on display in Vanessa Taylor’s script is simply staggering, and ‘painful’ is not a term I use lightly. The issues Dr. Fields forces Kay and Arnold to explore are absolutely agonizing, for it forces each of them to confront thoughts and emotions they’ve long since locked away. Taking an honest, raw look at oneself is never easy, but doing so in conjunction with another person, defining your own identity in tandem with someone close, has to be one of the hardest things we, as humans, could ever do.
Hope Springs hits hard and cuts deep because it doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of the process. What Kay and Arnold are going through hurts, and the writing and performances are intent on making you feel every ounce of that pain. When Dr. Fields first raises the issue of sexuality, I expected the film to cut away; the typical language of cinema simply doesn’t allow for conversations that awkward or personal. Instead, the scene continues, as Kay and Arnold are each slowly forced to start discussing their sex lives in greater and greater detail. It isn’t played for laughs. It’s uncomfortable, and it’s difficult, and even when the tension becomes unbearable, the film pushes further, because that’s where the deepest, most profound truths are discovered.
The film is relentlessly bleak at times, and it connects because of how completely authentic each moment feels. Even if you can’t directly relate to Kay and Arnold yourself, you’re bound to know someone who’s been through this. Be they parents, relatives, or neighbors, we’ve all observed or been part of a disintegrating couple, and Hope Springs captures that process with unflinching honesty. I think many audiences will be unprepared for how dark and palpable the material is, and it’s possible they’ll shy away from what the film has to say precisely because it is so painfully raw. This isn’t about entertainment, or escapism, and that’s going to make it extremely challenging for some viewers.
Casting actors as recognizable as Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones only adds to the disorientation. These are familiar presences, and to watch them encounter such relatable, human issues brings the film that much closer to our own lives. Jones, in particular, has stepped far outside his Fugitive comfort zone, and it’s simply breathtaking to watch him illustrate such a profoundly broken man. He’s not afraid to make this character ugly, but he’s also capable of translating deep-seated pathos, and that’s what makes Arnold worth rooting for, even at his darkest. This may be the very best work of Jones’ career, right up there with his quietly powerful performance in No Country For Old Men.
As for Streep, this is easily the best role she’s had in a long time. Like anyone else, I believe Streep is one of the all-time great actresses, but I think she’s spent far too much of the last decade in ‘high-concept’ rolls, like Mamma Mia, Julie and Julia, or The Iron Lady. Streep is good at playing larger-than-life figures, but next to the powerfully vulnerable work she does here, hamming it up as Margaret Thatcher seems like an extreme waste of talent. With Kay, Streep is allowed to be delicate and sincere in ways those big roles never allow, and it’s simply revelatory to experience the emotional beating she puts the audience through over the course of the film.
As Dr. Fields, Steve Carell isn’t playing a major, fleshed-out character. He’s just the therapist, and nothing more than that. You could, hypothetically, get any actor to do the part. But Carell is one of the great dramatic actors of the modern era (even if he’s primarily known for comedy), and without the weight and authenticity he brings to the roll, the film would feel incomplete. Most movie therapists don’t even remotely resemble real-life psychiatrists, but Carell has done his research, and thanks to his work, Dr. Fields comes across as a real professional, and a brilliant one at that.
Though this is primarily a writer’s film, David Frankel impresses with his quietly accomplished direction. His exquisite blocking and sharp cinematography lends the dialogue-driven film a truly cinematic sheen, and the use of music, incidental or otherwise, is uniformly effective.
Hope Springs is not an easy experience, but it is a tremendously rewarding one. It’s a little unlike anything I’ve seen before; other films have, of course, dealt with the difficulties of romance, but to do so with an older couple, and to be so frank about sexuality and emotional intimacy, sets the film apart from anything in the current cinematic landscape. Hope Springs is unquestionably one of the best films of the year, a shining example of what incredible highs modern filmmaking can achieve.