Meryl Streep is at her comic best attempting to pump life into a moribund marriage
Streep is Kay, a wistful romantic who longs to resuscitate her long marriage from its current, near-terminal state. Her husband Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) is a curmudgeonly accountant whose enthusiasm for golf has long outshone that for his wife, whom he notices primarily as a source of food and clean laundry. They now sleep in separate rooms: an old back injury of Arnold's acts as an excuse for never finding their way back to each other.
Their cavernous house is practically a supporting character. There's a nice sitting room they never sit in – Arnold, like so many movie husbands, is welded to his TV chair – while a well-worn track runs from stove to chair, to briefcase, to office, to dinner, to those separate rooms, marking out a daily grind. Their mutual anniversary present is a practical new cable package; as Kay points out sadly, now their children are grown-up, they've settled into being room-mates.
After trying and failing to seduce an uninterested Arnold, Kay throws some of her savings into couples counselling in the twee town of Hope Springs. You hope Arnold finally agrees to come because he wants to save his marriage, but he's such a hectoring grump that you wonder if it's just so he has something else to complain to Kay about.
If this were a different film, hilarity would ensue in a series of montages. But, instead, we have Steve Carell playing it straight as their therapist; a marvellously awkward seduction scene in a cinema, and the sort of clanging dysfunction that comes from two people not understanding how the other works any more. Arnold complains and grumbles at Kay before taking refuge on the sofa.
In other hands, watching a marriage being turned inside out is an ordeal. But however dead it first appears, there's a seam of jokes to mine from such a long marriage, and Streep and Jones both bring their A-game. Arnold's brusque growl has as much wit as it does discontent, and Streep is terrific at comedy (director David Frankel also directed her in The Devil Wears Prada) without overplaying. A nearly mortifying scene involving a banana and a sex book is cut off, quite literally, before it gets too much.
In turn, Tommy Lee Jones gives us a world-class example of the grumpy old boot. Arnold does everything he can to alienate Kay: from hectoring her about money to the sort of insidious bullying he doesn't even recognise. But slowly he opens up to both his therapist and his wife. You're not sure if they're on track to Kay's fairytale ending, but as the title suggests, hope springs eternal.
Daily tip from the lady archive
"It is not always she who appears most kindly in her interest who is the safe sharer of sacred (maybe sorrowful) secrets! Charming manners do not always connote sincerity of heart!”The Lady. In Confidence. 4th April, 1918