Summary: Hope Springs rewards you the time you’ve spent watching the therapy sessions between the couple with a near-brilliant third act spectacularly played by Streep and Jones
The Indian version of Big Brother reality show has a divorced couple under the same roof as two competing contestants. Although I rarely watch the show, I did manage to catch one episode where the couple fought a heated argument involving their past. The husband was extremely defensive and tried to overrule his wife’s allegations by shouting back whenever she tried to put across her point while the wife on the other hand was overly submissive, holding back her voice and nodding as if accepting that everything is her own fault. These two contestants are extremely similar in their personalities to Arnold and Kay, except they seem like they are in their forties…. and they are no longer together.
On the other hand, Kay and Arnold remain a couple for 31 years but seem to have lost the passion and spirit to keep their marriage alive, and therefore, on Kay’s insistence, seek the help of a counselor named Dr. Feld. During their week-long sessions, they are probed about their marriage and sexual fantasies and are instructed to do tasks that shall try to resolve the ‘deviated septum’/the lacunae in their marriage. This gamble has chances of putting their marriage at risk by exposing their weaknesses, but it also has gains that are worth the efforts – a glimmer of hope.
Hope Springs succeeds at bringing joy and hope in not just its protagonists’ lives but also in the audiences’ own satisfaction with the film with its near-brilliant last twenty five minutes that is so well acted by both Streep and Jones that you as the audience member feel completely compensated for the time you have spent listening to the long counseling sessions with the couple. It keeps its plot complexity to the bare minimum by focusing majorly on Kay and Arnold; even Dr. Feld is simply there as a stimulus to change the couple’s lives and so we know nothing much about him. Well, if you really think about it, would you being a patient really want to know about your counselor’s personal life when you are too concerned about yourself? This limited perspective was necessary for us to realize how important the therapy was for the two, especially Kay.
Kay is the faithful wife who is too old-fashioned/submissive to play the role of a seductress or a dominatrix. She is not able to give sex but is more comfortable receiving it, and so fails when she tries giving her husband pleasure in the theater on the recommendation of Dr. Feld (to whom Arnold mentions about having fantasies of banging Kay in public). Arnold finds it hard to assume charge, and neither does he allow his wife to try to fulfill his fantasies. Dr. Feld issues homework not based on predetermined theories but through permutations and combinations of whatever information the couple has given him, for example, Kay hates Arnold’s lack of effort and parsimony, so Dr. Feld instructs him to take his wife on a date at an expensive hotel. The main challenge is to confront the problem in the real world, once the couple has left the holiday spot. After much winnowing and polishing, we just have to see whether the before-after effect works or not.
As mentioned in the third paragraph, the last twenty five minutes of Hope Springs is worth the long (at least in terms of pace and tempo of the movie) wait. Meryl Streep evokes an emotional response in the realest sense from the audience and this isn’t the first time she has done this. Watching her performance is similar to reading Leo Tolstoy‘s War and Peace – both are exquisitely detailed and both make everything right at the crucial moment. In War and Peace, when Natasha has a change of heart and tries to escape with Anatole, you as the reader are completely into her state of mind – you literally experience what she is experiencing. In Hope Springs, the moment came right after Arnold opens his eyes while trying to penetrate Kay and stops sex midway and the camera shows a profile view of Arnold on top of Kay – Kay realizes what has happened and covers her mouth with her hand for a second and then sits on the floor. The way Meryl reacts as Kay had me crying, but I didn’t realize for a few moments that I was in tears and had a lump in my throat. Meryl makes you feel certain sensations that can be only felt when you watch something real –in Out of Africa, towards the end, when Meryl fell to her knees to beg I could actually feel my heart sink into my stomach.
Arnold is very obdurate in his thinking and personality and has his defenses ready in the form of nagging, arguing and browbeating. But with every argument against him gaining strength, his whole body sinks and the only easy solution for him is to leave or neglect the problem itself. This trait is visible in almost every man since men have big egos and a will to prove they are in the right. Tommy Lee Jones channels this down to a T, and substantially assists Meryl in well, driving her character to the point of a nervous breakdown. But Tommy also shows Arnold’s positive side – his sense of humor, his comforting smile and faithfulness. The performance has been overlooked by Golden Globes who have done him a favor by nominating him for ‘Best Actor in Supporting Role’, but it would’ve been a worthy contender had it been nominated.
Last words about the music: Let’s Stay Together complement’s Arnold’s tastes (most men in 50s love such music) but not ‘Why?’ and the one playing while Kay is shopping (non-diegetic music that should’ve been cut out).