The marital study is a staple genre of grownup cinema, yet film-makers generally like to keep it young. From Scenes from a Marriage to Blue Valentine to last year’s Marriage Story, film history is riddled with strong, searing portraits of couples on the right side of middle age weathering various emotional crises. Raise the age of the protagonists above 50, however, and the drop-off is significant, as if every older relationship settles into a comfy-slippers routine that isn’t worth dramatising.
Hope Gap, which began streaming on Curzon Home Cinema on Friday, is among the exceptions. Writer-director William Nicholson’s staid, reserved study of a sixtysomething couple unravelling on the eve of their 29th anniversary is affecting in spite of the somewhat stifled, magnolia-walls nature of its film-making. That’s thanks in large part to Bill Nighy and Annette Bening as the civilly separating spouses: the actors enliven Nicholson’s writing – inspired by his own parents’ divorce, which may well be why it’s loth to go for the jugular – with delicate, tremulous feeling.
Still, it’s a relatively minor entry in a subgenre at which British film-makers have disproportionately excelled in recent years. Take 45 Years (streaming in the Mubi Library), Andrew Haigh’s magnificent microscope view of a long, placid marriage haunted by the ghosts of past relationships and the persistence of memory. Charlotte Rampling was justly Oscar-nominated for her finely etched study of rage fighting the terror of loneliness, though it only works with Tom Courtenay’s half of the duet.
45 Years was a small film, but a veritable blockbuster beside Radiator, which came out shortly after Haigh’s film in 2015 and never escaped its shadow. Available on iTunes, Tom Browne’s microbudget chamber piece may be the great scarcely seen British film of the past decade, unpicking the threads of an estranged Cumbrian family with intense compassion and mordant humour. Middle-aged son Daniel (Daniel Cerqueira) is summoned to the family home by his meek, gentle-hearted mum (Gemma Jones) when his gruff dad (the late Richard Johnson) is struck down with an inexplicable ailment that renders him permanently sofa-bound. His obstinate paralysis is plainly a metaphor for deeper personal impasses within the household, and Browne negotiates them with unsentimental grace.
In a mellower vein, the more contented rhythms of autumn-years marriage set the pace for Mike Leigh’s great, bittersweet Another Year (2010; Amazon). Its central couple’s stability cruelly amplifies the volatile emotional problems of less settled friends and relatives in their social circle. One of its stars, Jim Broadbent, also anchors Roger Michell and Hanif Kureishi’s tart Le Weekend (2013; Amazon again), in which a Birmingham couple’s 30th anniversary jaunt to Paris reveals thornier relationship dynamics along the way – though Lindsay Duncan’s performance is the real keeper here.
Beyond Britain, Michael Haneke’s 2012 Palme d’Or-winning Amour (Curzon Home Cinema) set the bar austerely high for any future quiveringly intimate studies of elderly lovers coming involuntarily apart. It’s the Austrian’s plainest, most humane film, entirely of his own rigorous making but bearing the imprint of Bergman – whose 2003 swansong Saraband (on the BFI Player) is an exquisitely rueful follow-up to Scenes from a Marriage, examining the enduring tensions and affections between the long-divorced. Undervalued by the director’s standards on release, it deserves a place in the canon.
American film-makers appear to be less enamoured of the subject. The light but tender 2012 drama Hope Springs (Amazon Prime) is a rare example of a slick, mainstream film about later-life marital ennui. It takes a few glib emotional short cuts, but features the best (and least rewarded) Meryl Streep performance of the past decade or so. Ira Sachs’s airily melancholic Love Is Strange (on Google Play) stood out for examining long-term gay coupledom through the everyday prism of weary economic anxiety rather than oppression.
It’s working from an impeccable template. Like Yasujirō Ozu’s simple, pristine generation-gap fable Tokyo Story (1953), still streaming as part of the BFI Player’s Japan season, Sachs’s film doffs its cap to Leo McCarey’s wrenching 1937 masterwork Make Way for Tomorrow (streaming on Chili), about an elderly couple forced to live apart when they lose their home, refused mutual accommodation by their children. It’s rare to find a film from any era this piquant and pointed about both the physical cruelties and financial restrictions of encroaching old age: coming out of golden-age Hollywood, it remains an essential and invigorating one-off.
Also new on streaming and DVD
The King of Staten Island
Judd Apatow’s semi-biopic of Saturday Night Live comic Pete Davidson has passages of inspiration and integrity, but never really makes a case for our interest in its minor subject over 137 dawdling minutes. Marisa Tomei is the best thing here, but when is she not?
(Second Run, 12)
A vastly different exercise in distorted real-life portraiture from Apatow’s, Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa’s enveloping, shadow-soaked film studies a Cape Verdean woman adrift in Portugal for her husband’s funeral, drawing on the experience of its eponymous leading lady.
(Second Sight, 15)
Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 outback fever dream gets a mighty, elaborately packaged and accessorised Blu-ray reissue to show off its new 4K restoration – but the film itself is all you need, and it has held on to its witchy fascination and sunstruck beauty over the years.