Hope Springs focuses on a topic that is not much part of the American cinematic cannon. As I watched the film, I was reminded of a book I read the year prior called Sex at Dawn. The book argues that the standard narrative of human sexual evolution is incorrect. The film does not ultimately support this notion, but it does sympathize with it. While it is not nearly as interesting, provocative and entertaining as the book, it still manages to broach an important subject in a smart and effective manner.
Directed by David Frankel and written by Vanessa Taylor, the film begins as Kay, played by Meryl Streep, freshens up in the bathroom before going to bed. She is trying to look sexy. She walks to her husband’s room, Arnold, played by Tommy Lee Jones, and opens the door. The married couple does not sleep in the same bed, as we later learn, due to a back injury Arnold suffered long ago. Sleeping in different rooms simply became their routine. She tentatively opens the door to a reading and uninterested Arnold. After a perfunctory exchange, (Arnold does not feel well) Kay softly shuts the door to continue with her silent suffering, quiet desperation and intense longing for intimacy. All this is conveyed effectively in the scene.
How many couples endure sexually moribund relationships? How many settle for lack of intimacy simply because of routine? It is more common than one might think, so studies suggest. The banality of the marriage continues, as Kay makes Arnold one egg and one piece of bacon each morning, but she is nearing her breaking point.
After 30 years of marriage, Kay decides to do something and books intensive week-long couple’s therapy session in Great Hope Springs, Maine with a noted marriage counselor played by Steve Carell. Predictably, Arnold will have none of it, but eventually relents and accompanies his wife to Maine.
The relationship’s dynamics are well conveyed while the couple meanders through the small, quaint town. Arnold complains and complains and Kay takes it all in, almost like she’s absorbing abuse. He has nothing positive to say and this clearly bothers Kay. Kay, after all, simply wants to feel some intimacy with her husband and thinks this might be the last straw for the relationship. Arnold has no idea that she feels this way.
Eventually, the couple arrives at Dr. Feld’s office for some therapy. These scenes are quite effective as the have the ring of authenticity. Carell hits just the right notes. He is non-judgmental, but persistent and challenging. Through several sessions, Arnold and Kay share a variety of feelings and Dr. Feld provides “sex-ercises” for the couple to try on their own. Discussing sexual desires, fantasies and intimacy often leads to awkwardness and irritation, even after 30 years, or especially because of 30 years of marriage. Sex is often linked to a variety of other ‘issues’ or ‘feelings’ and the movie treats this with maturity and aplomb.
Another reason the film works rests on these scenes as they encompass a major portion of the film. The acting by Streep, Jones and Carell in these therapy sessions engages as it entertains. They are full of regret, anger, embarrassment, frustration and occasionally some happiness. The difficulty of conveying one’s sexual desires features prominently during one session and leads to a mildly funny scene at the film’s conclusion.
As Arnold and Kay attempt to work through the various “sex-ercises,” additional humor comes through—an awkward movie theater scene is funny. But sometimes they don’t and that’s what’s refreshing. It would strain credibility too much if things worked out so easily.
Of course, the film ultimately ends the way one expects. But at least it takes the issue—declining marital sexual desire and intimacy–seriously. And it is nice to see sexuality explored though older characters, as opposed to the standard nubile actors cavorting in hyper-stylized and perfectly harmonious versions of it.
There are some problems here, notably with the convenient ending. The idea that a few tactual activities suffices to induce long ago dormant desires seems a little too facile. Further, the movie really does not probe too deeply into to the root of the problem. Screenwriter, Vanessa Taylor, offers some vague notions, but really does not peel back any layers to examine the sources leading to sexual frustration. But for those wanting a movie about real people with real problems, problems common to many, you could do a lot worse. And, of course, the acting is simply terrific.