I would watch Meryl Streep read the phone book. She is that compelling onscreen. She is, in fact, the most gifted actress of our generation, the same way Katherine Hepburn was the most celebrated actress of her time. Streep has been nominated for an Academy Award seventeen times, winning three, for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Sophie’s Choice (1982), and the latest, Iron Lady, in 2011, whereas Hepburn was nominated twelve times, winning four.

The movie Hope Springs features Streep in an unusual, highly effective pairing with Tommy Lee Jones. The story shows two married people growing apart, mired in routine. In some ways it examines what I would call the uncomfortable nature of familiarity. When you are deadened to real feelings, having substitute conversations rather than saying what is actually on your mind, your marriage is stagnant.

Kay and Arnold seek outside help from a highly touted marriage therapist, played by Steve Carell. He first suggests an exercise where they hold each other. Watching Streep’s character reach out to touch her husband, the audience sees her hand shaking, nervous to disturb the status quo. As the most talented actress working today, Streep doesn’t waste a single gesture, be it a hand shaking, a nod of the head, repressed tears welling up, the magic as a smile as it colors her face. She shows love, fear, trepidation as well as, eventually, hope, simply by knowing the exact gesture to fit the moment.

Jones’ character Arnold learns that the adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” can indeed be turned on its head. The movie celebrates the change from meaningless, mundane activity to the point where a couple might find a way to reconnect. The therapist tells the couple, “Sometimes when a connection is lost, we forget about how to want one another.” That is the journey the couple must take.

At one point, midway through the movie, Streep’s character declares, “You know how you always think you’re headed toward something. There’s always something to look forward to.” She despairs that now she’s grown too old to be surprised, to experience a feeling of wonder and hope. She fears she’s sliding on a downhill slope toward the end of life, and she can’t even rely on her husband to be her stalwart pillar of strength and, perhaps more challenging, to be present to her as they live out their life together.

His reaction to her attempts to resuscitate the marriage is to say, as a stoic figure, “There are some things in this life that you don’t say for a reason.” As a tax analyst, he values routine and predictability, and he is challenged by his wife to move forward rather than stultify in fear. As Carell’s character notes, “Even great marriages have terrible years.”

The trick, in my mind, is to love in spite of the obstacles. Who wants to get to the end of life, only to wonder, “Have I done all I could to make my life mean something?”

The title says it all: Hope Springs.

Advertisements