(director/writer: William Nicholson; screenwriter: based on the play The Retreat From Moscow by Nicholson; cinematographer: Anna Valdez-Hanks; editor: Pia Di Ciaula; music: Alex Heefes; cast: Annette Bening (Grace), Bill Nighy (Edward), Josh O’Connor (Jamie), Sally Rogers (Angela); Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: David M. Thompson, Sandra McDermott; Roadside Attractions/Screen Media Films; 2019)
“To this viewer the film lacked emotional depth.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
British filmmaker William Nicholson (“Firelight”), the Oscar-nominated screenwriter, in his second film as director, films this searing but superficial family drama about a 29 year marriage suddenly coming apart. It supposedly is a reminder of what happened to his parents when he was a child. The film is based on his play The Retreat From Moscow. Though the story is underwhelming, the earnest acting compensates for that defect somewhat despite the American actresses unconvincing British accent.
The serious-minded introvert Edward (Bill Nighy) is a history teacher at a secondary school set to soon retire. He has invited their twentysomething London-based son Jamie (Josh O’Connor) to visit for the weekend the family’s oceanside cottage in Seaford, as he will tell his needy extrovert wife Grace (Annette Bening), someone difficult to live with, that he always felt they were not a suitably matched pair and he’s leaving her for a younger woman (Sally Rogers) and wants his son there to perhaps soften the blow.
The break-up scene is awkward, making it not possible to connect with either party even if there’s a lot of hurt on both parties.
Though the talky scenes are stagy and not endearing dramatically, things are opened up over visits to the city and the beautiful shots of the seafront vistas and its white cliffs. A few more characters pop up in minor roles (more are spoken about but never seen), but this is a three-actor film. It sticks to telling in a straight-forward manner how a family can be destroyed from such a separation even if there are no young children involved.
It’s an intelligent adult film but one that needs a stronger narrative than just staying on the vibe that divorce is a painful experience. I’m sure the divorce meant something deep to the author, but to this viewer the film lacked emotional depth. References to English poetry and literature could not fill the void for how shallow it all seemed.
REVIEWED ON 5/21/2020 GRADE: C+